Evolving notes, images and sounds by Luis Apiolaza

Category: breeding (Page 2 of 3)

Tuesday evening mid-life crisis

There was a time, roughly 30 years ago, when my whole career extended to an unknown, distant future. What should I do? Where should I be working? were the questions in my mind during a hot Chilean summer. At that time, New Zealand and Australia were not in the horizon and I had just applied to my first forestry job in Valdivia.

I got that job and three years later I started my PhD. I met people, travelled, gained citizenships, made friends, learned many things, forgot others. Today, thirty years after that summer, I look to the next 10 years in the future and ask myself: What should I do? Where should I be working? The same questions plus What would be the best use of my time?

Now that distant unknown is three decades closer. Should I do more administration and, strange misnomer, “service” to the profession? (as if all the other work was not of service). Should I go for a new push of research work, write up all the ideas thought but not completed and published? Maybe I should transfer all I know to other people.

All of the above, a mix of two, one only… What would be the best use of my time?

Monopoly money vs real money

“Tree breeding has added 2 Billion dollars to the forest industry” said the presenter during a seminar.

Two billion? With a B? How come we struggle to get funding for projects then—I asked myself.

There are two testing cultures in forestry: the inventory/modeller crowd and the breeding crowd. The inventory crowd often relies on multiple-tree plots over a given area. Plots can be rectangular, circular, defined by prism, etc. The breeding crowd tends to use single-tree plots, because they (including myself) are testing many genotypes and it is more statistically efficient to use plots defined by a single individual.

Breeders use a selection index that gives a dollar value for each individual, while competing against a mix of genotypes (remember single-tree plots?). We would like to extend those results to inventory level and multiply the values by hundreds of thousands of hectares, there is a correlation with area-based performance, but not perfect.

Don’t get me wrong, I work in breeding. However, the selection values are Monopoly money until we get realised genetic gain validated by inventory plots in Real money. The two testing cultures have to match and forest valuation go up by $2 Billion before making a claim like that.

Collaborative competition

I was reading Peter Amer’s “Pre-competitive collaboration” in which he discusses the interaction between private and public sectors in research and innovation, as someone coming from the private sector. Nice commentary.

I work for a public university, so I come from a slightly different position.

In my quantitative genetics work, most of the methodologies are publicly available. Most software is also freely available (databases, R, Python) or it is affordable (asreml-R).

Most breeding programmes can access all those “components”. What often varies between programmes, setting aside biological differences, is the quality of the execution: how do we put together the components? This also relates to the ability of the people involved in the programme and their “vision”.

From that point of view, collaboration between competing actors—contributing to a common pool of knowledge and tools—helps everyone to deliver more effective programmes.

In my mind, there is room for a mix of breeding programmes and service providers. This mix will vary with location and time. In some places/countries, private providers will be the best choice, while in others public programmes or mixed partnerships could be best.

Leaking genetic gain: not quite a selection index

A few years ago I was talking with a breeder who spent substantial time running genetic analyses, with fairly sophisticated linear mixed models. From there the breeder obtained BLUPs for a couple of selection criteria (using an animal model with heterogeneous site variances), heritabilities, genetic correlations, etc. The typical stuff.

Then came the leak: let’s say that the criteria were stem diameter (dbh) and wood basic density (den). The breeder thought that dbh was twice as important as den, therefore used a selection index weighing the breeding values as I = 2 * dbh + 1 * den. Easy.

My jaw dropped, because I couldn’t see how the breeder was accounting for the different genetic variances, the heritabilities, the genetic correlation or the relative economic importance of the criteria. I couldn’t because the breeder was not considering any of that.

The breeding programme used a “faux selection index”. At first sight it looked the part, but it completely wasted all the effort used in the genetic analyses. Why? Someone was trying to be clever and nobody else audited the methodology.

Long-term and longer-term

Last Tuesday I had a very interesting visit (coordinated by Dr Verónica Emhart) and discussion with the breeding team at CMPC in Los Ángeles, southern Chile. This is part of a trip visiting organisations in Chile during December and January*.

I had offered to give a talk about our work breeding for solid wood products in pine and eucalypts at the School of Forestry, University of Canterbury. I pointed out to the audience that this type of talks to me are really an excuse to have a conversation, and we did have hours and hours chatting with plenty of questions going both ways!

Breeding is a long-term endeavour, that goes well-beyond the quarterly-reporting demands in companies. So I was happy to see in the conversation that there was plenty of long-term thinking in the breeding programme.

At the same time, there is “longer-term thinking”. I remember visiting CMPC as a young forester 30 years ago and most work at that time was in radiata pine. Business and climate change have meant a transition from pine to eucalypts, first to E. globulus then to E nitens and now increasingly the E nitens x globulus hybrid. This type of change stresses resources in a breeding programme, but it also creates interesting opportunities for refining one’s understanding of site variability and the link between tree characteristics and end-product requirements.

At the end we run out of time, but I hope I can visit them again soon and continue the conversation.

*Part of an Erskine programme, where the University of Canterbury gives me the opportunity to travel to improve understanding that contributes to my teaching.

PS. In the micropropagation lab they have beautiful copihues as gifts. Unfortunately, I have the strong suspicion that this would not pass biosecurity restrictions on arrival to NZ.

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