“…sugarcane breeding programs are producing more of the same as they employ very similar parents year after year.”
William Burnquist is the director of Boyd Consultores S.A, an agronomist from Escola Superior de Agricultura “Luiz de Queiroz” – USP, and a Ph.D in plant genetic improvement from Cornell University.
Burnquist established the CTC’s Sugarcane Molecular Biology program, and worked at the Copersucar Technology Center.
AgriBrasilis – What did the Sugarcane Genome Project represent? What were its steps?
William Burnquist – The Sugarcane Genome Project, funded by Copersucar and Fapesp, began in 1999. Its goal was to sequence 50,000 sugarcane genes.
The project had the participation of 240 researchers from 22 research groups in several Brazilian universities. It represented the introduction of the most modern tools of molecular biology in the genetic improvement of sugarcane.
After the first phase, successfully completed in 2002, the project continued with the functional study of the genes identified in phase 1 and eventually with the complete genetic sequencing of the SP80-3280 variety, in 2019.
AgriBrasilis – What has been the evolution of sugarcane productivity over the last few decades? How does it compare with that of other crops and why?
William Burnquist – The average productivity of sugarcane has not shown an increase in recent decades: it maintains a level of approximately 75 tonnes per hectare.
In other crops of national importance, such as soybeans and corn, increases in average productivity are observed. These two crops have more dynamic genetic improvement programs, that have provided gains even in the face of geographic changes.
Sugarcane breeding programs lack more dynamism in introducing variability in the germplasm used. In short, sugarcane breeding programs are producing more of the same as they employ very similar parents year after year.
AgriBrasilis – How do germplasm banks help in sugarcane improvement?
William Burnquist – Germplasm banks are an important element of a breeding program as they contain the necessary variability to create new individuals, better than the previous ones. The germplasm bank must be dynamic, always incorporating new individuals, with useful variability.
AgriBrasilis – What is CopaCana? What are its goals and results?
William Burnquist – Boyd Biotech do Brasil created the World Cup of Sugarcane Varieties, CopaCana, a network of sugarcane genetic improvement programs to evaluate the germplasm in Brazil.
Institutions from Australia, Argentina, South Africa, Cuba, Indonesia, Mauritius and Pakistan participate in this network. The introduction of materials is carried out in compliance with the import and quarantine rules of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock.
After quarantine, foreign varieties are planted in field experiments, in various edaphoclimatic conditions in the States of São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso do Sul and Pernambuco.
Digital Phenotyping is used, a “state of the art” technology to objectively evaluate the performance of foreign varieties in comparison with the standard varieties currently planted.
Periodic images captured by drones allow distinguishing the experimental varieties in relation to their growth curves, biomass accumulation and vegetative vigor. Analyzes using artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms make it possible to classify experimental varieties in terms of productivity.
In the first series of imported and evaluated varieties, composed of 20 varieties from five countries, two Argentine varieties and two Australian varieties with commercial potential for Brazilian farms were identified.
These varieties, called “Golden Balls” are being multiplied in accredited nurseries to be offered to farmers during the 2023/24 harvest.
AgriBrasilis – Is it feasible to cultivate varieties developed in other countries in Brazil? And vice versa?
William Burnquist – Yes, it’s feasible. Foreign sugarcane varieties have already been commercially successful in Brazil, such as NA56-79, an Argentine variety that occupied 45% of the sugarcane area in the State of São Paulo in the 1980s.
The reverse is also valid. Some Brazilian varieties are successful in other countries, such as SP70-1284, commercial in Mexico, Cuba and several other countries in Central America and the Caribbean.