The name of the ad hoc working group IMODDUS at the Community Plant Variety Office (CPVO) stands for Integration of molecular data into DUS testing. The creation of IMODDUS was agreed by the CPVO Administrative Council (AC) in the framework of the adoption of the R&D Strategy for the period 2015-2020. To carry out its mission successfully is a priority for Martin Ekvad, the President of the CPVO. European Seed sat down with Anne Weitz, Technical Expert Plant Breeders Rights of the CPVO.
European Seed (ES): Recently there have been regular discussions about the use of biomolecular techniques in the testing of Distinctness, Uniformity and Stability (DUS), which are prerequisites for plant variety rights. Why is it necessary to add these techniques to the toolbox of the DUS examiner?
Anne Weitz (AW): CPVO has the firm conviction that biomolecular techniques could help to improve quality and efficiency in DUS testing and provide useful tools for the enforcement of plant breeders’ rights. One of the main concerns of the CPVO is the number of varieties of common knowledge to be grown in such trials, which can for some species, include more than 1,000 plots. Varieties which are potentially similar to the candidate variety, have to be grown side by side in the trial that determines Distinctness, Uniformity and Stability (DUS) of the new variety. To ensure that the cost for acquiring a Community Plant Variety Right (CPVR) is kept at a reasonable level, there is an interest to reduce the number of varieties grown in DUS trials. Observing the extent of the currently available biomolecular techniques and how these are already used in DUS testing, one will see that they are mostly used for management of the reference collections with the purpose to exclude more varieties that need to be grown alongside candidate varieties.
ES: Not everybody is convinced that we should be introducing such techniques in DUS testing. What is the reason for these concerns?
AW: The concerns raised refer essentially to the fact that molecular techniques can be very powerful instruments, especially considering the recent developments of SNPs (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms, red.), or further down the road, of whole genome sequencing or genotyping by sequencing. These techniques would allow to establish much smaller differences which, based on observations of the phenotype, would not be visible. In the same sense, for the test of uniformity, here again the precision of the techniques could potentially address each individual plant of a sample to be observed as different and thus increase the number of off-types. In addition, breeders would need to maintain their varieties uniform on the molecular level and not only on the phenotypic level, as it is the case today. These concerns have to be taken very seriously when establishing thresholds for the assessment of uniformity and distinctness should these techniques be used for such purposes in the future. It is important that breeders share their experience in this regard with the relevant authorities.
ES: How can biomolecular techniques help improve the quality and efficiency of DUS testing?
AW: As mentioned above, the first impact is certainly to be found in the management of the reference collection. That can be reached by using a reliable similarity threshold, based on the comparison of DNA profiles, to safely exclude varieties of common knowledge from being grown. That means that the compilation of common databases including DNA profiles, which are the basis for calculating genetic distances, are a valuable tool for examination offices to organize the DUS trial. Instead of the todays’ need to maintain a living collection of varieties of common knowledge with a phenotypical description under the environmental conditions of the examination office, the comparison of DNA could reduce the maintenance of the living material to a single place in the EU and limit the need to acquire and grow this material to a minimum. This application thus helps to improve the quality and to reduce the costs by carrying out smaller trials. In addition, biomolecular information about varieties could usefully complement phenotypical observations, rendering it possible in some cases to take a decision on D, U and S more rapidly, the duration of the test is shortened.
ES: Which other functions could such techniques have in the realm of plant breeders’ rights?
AW: For example, for the purpose of variety identification in an enforcement situation, DNA samples from an official and trustworthy source can be made available to titleholders in case of infringements. The titleholder can use DNA profiles to compare his protected variety with a supposed infringing sample. The results are available rather quickly compared to a growing trial. Although comparisons on a genetic level are not always conclusive as regards identification, they can give the parties a very good prima facie idea as regards a potential infringement.
ES: What is the aim of the IMODDUS project
AW: The CPVO R&D Strategy 2015-2020 states that one of the main objectives in this area is to promote the use of bio-molecular techniques in DUS testing and variety identification. In essence, IMODDUS works on the one hand as a think-tank on how to best integrate and promote molecular techniques into DUS testing. It assesses and discusses new developments in molecular techniques and their potential or immediate use for DUS of certain species, variety identification and enforcement. On the other hand, there is a practical side whereby IMODDUS experts express an opinion on the priority of R&D project proposals applied for co-funding by the CPVO.
ES: The first report of the IMODDUS group has been published. Can you share the (preliminary) results of the project?
AW: During the two first meetings, experts, breeders and scientists had very fruitful discussions. Based on inputs from the members of IMODDUS, the CPVO drafted a first version of a Strategy paper. In its function as a Think Tank, it was agreed to continue the work by assessing the consequences of a model where exclusively DNA would be used for the DUS test, and to analyse all aspects, positive and negative, of such an approach. A further result is to join forces in order to seek financing out of the Horizon 2020 programme of the EU Commission for the work we wish to carry out.
ES: What is in the pipeline of IMODDUS? What do you hope to achieve in the near future?
AW: In addition to continuing to work on the Strategy paper, there are some R&D project proposals supported by the IMODDUS experts that are now in the CPVO decision making process. We are revising the R&D procedure under which funds can be made available by the CPVO, in order to be more efficient. We hope to be in a position to reply to a call for a project in the framework of Horizon 2020. That would be an important step to improve collaboration of the relevant players by creating a consortium for that purpose, and to levy the required financial support.
ES: How will DUS testing look like in 10 or 20 years from now? Will there be more use of biomolecular techniques?
AW: First of all, I would like to emphasize that any development will take place after a thorough discussion with all stakeholders, including breeders associations. There are rapid developments and a great potential to apply them in our work. Their use will certainly be an integral part of DUS testing. If reliable methods can be developed, the use may be extended beyond the management of reference collections, so that distinctness and uniformity would at least partly be determined by these means. As I see it, the candidate variety must nevertheless be grown in order to establish the variety description, and that description would be complemented by the description of its DNA profile. Thanks to the integration of biomolecular techniques the costs for applicants could be maintained at an acceptable level, which would be of particular benefit for small and medium sized breeding companies.