Traci Kantarski

Traci Kantarski joined Columbia University in New York City as a Columbia Science Fellow and Lecturer in Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology. Kantarski is an instructor for Frontiers of Science, a course that is part of the Core Curriculum for 1st year undergraduates and introduces students to four fields of science: Brain & Behavior, Physics, Biodiversity, & Earth Science. Kantarski teaches them how to evaluate what they read and hear from the media regarding 'scientific claims'. Kantarski is also continuing her research in intermediate wheatgrass genetics/genomics for at least this academic year.

As the global population continues to grow, the amount of arable land decreases, and climate change leads to less favorable production conditions, humanity will face new food security challenges.  The Green Revolution of the 1940s – 1960s modernized agriculture, resulting in high-yielding varieties of cereals that likely saved over one billion people from starvation.  However, one in eight people (842 million) still suffer from chronic hunger, grain yield improvement in major annual crops has slowed, and most of the land suitable for production is in use and suffering from degradation.  While food insecurity is a multi-dimensional issue, the development of new crops optimized for alternative sustainable farming practices could address many of those components and is urgently needed.

Perennial plants dominate the natural landscape, but are currently of minor importance in modern agriculture.  Perennials offer many natural benefits over annuals, including permanent ground cover to reduce soil erosion, greater interception of light energy due to a longer growing season, reduced passes across the field for seeding and tillage operations, and a large root system that reduces nutrient leaching and gives greater access to water and nutrients and increased carbon fixation.  However, these perennial species have not experienced improvement through domestication or intensive modern breeding for yield and quality.  Developing perennial versions of the major grains crops could provide farmers with the options necessary for producing food in challenging conditions.

Thinopyrum intermedium, intermediate wheatgrass (Kernza™), was selected for domestication because of its relatively large seeds and high yield.  Recently, its future as an economically viable crop has become more plausible with the discovery of a high yielding, non-shattering plant with free threshing seed.  Genetic markers have been developed from three populations of intermediate wheatgrass and utilized for the construction of a consensus genetic map.  These resources are being used to elucidate the genetic architecture underlying important domestication-related traits, including free threshing and non-shattering, and investigate colinearity with barley.  Additionally, the primary wheat domestication gene, Q, has been cloned in intermediate wheatgrass and the population is being genotyped to determine if any Q allele (or combination of alleles) is associated with the free threshing and non-shattering phenotypes.  These findings will allow for the implementation of marker-assisted selection in Kerza™ and increase our understanding of the domestication syndrome by studying domestication in action and comparing this information with what has been achieved in other cereals.