Sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.) is one of the world’s most recognizable flowers, featured by artists and organizations as diverse as Van Gogh to the United Nations. Sunflower is also an important source of edible oil, being the world’s 13th most valuable crop. There are many types of wild sunflowers (52 species/ 67 taxa) and almost all can be used as donors for important traits that can be used to make the domesticated sunflower more productive and robust under challenging climatic conditions.

Wild sunflower
Wild sunflower (H. annuus), photo by Kasia Stepien

All sunflowers are native to North America, living in many diverse ecosystems and environments, from salt marshes to forests to sand dunes. A new study initiated by CIAT in collaboration with the USDA and University of British Columbia has explored these wild sunflower species that live in novel environments to identify those species and populations that could be most useful to plant breeders, especially in areas susceptible to climate change. The study combined geographic and genetic information techniques to inform both wild plant conservation and crop breeding. There was an attempt to find new sites for plant exploration and to find those sunflower species that live in extreme environments that would likely be the best candidates to help sunflower deal with the challenges of climate change.

Wild sunflowers that live in interesting environments and are interfertile with domesticated sunflower include Helianthus debilis, Helianthus anomalus, and Helianthus divaricatus. A surprising and quite useful result for plant breeders is that many populations of wild H. annuus, the plant from which the cultivated sunflower was domesticated, occur in extreme environments. Because of such close relation with the domesticated species, it may be much easier than expected for plant breeders to use sunflower crop wild relatives for introgression of stress resistance traits. The combination of techniques, which relied on large scale public data, provide a way to strategize for maximizing the benefit of sunflower genetic resources collections.

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Access “Ecogeography and utility to plant breeding of the crop wild relatives of sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.)

blog post by Michael Kantar, Biodiversity Research Centre and Department of Botany, University of British Columbia; and Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, University of Minnesota.

This work was undertaken as part of the initiative “Adapting agriculture to climate change: Collecting, protecting and preparing crop wild relatives” which is supported by the Government of Norway. The project is managed by the Global Crop Diversity Trust with the Millennium Seed Bank of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew UK and implemented in partnership with national and international genebanks and plant breeding institutes around the world. Funding was provided by the aforementioned initiative, The National Sunflower Association, The U.S. National Science Foundation, The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Genome BC, and Genome Canada.

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