The adverse impacts of climate change on agricultural production have raised concerns globally about food security. The use of wild relatives of cultivated plants in breeding programs is one of the options available that can contribute significantly to meet these challenges. Wild relatives comprise native species that share ancestry with relatively recently cultivated plants and represent an important potential source of valuable traits for breeding programs. These wild species have provided resistance characters against insects and diseases, tolerance to abiotic stresses and these contributions will increase the productivity for various crops such as bananas, beans, cassava, maize, oats, potatoes, rice, sugarcane, tomato and wheat, among others. Over the past 20 years there has been a continuous increase in releases of cultivars containing genes derived from wild relatives and these contributions are expected to increase with the increasing development of molecular techniques.
Breeding programs have obtained material from wild relatives from germplasm banks. However, there are still significant gaps in the genetic diversity of major crops in existing germplasm collections that can be filled by more extensive collection and conservation of wild relatives. At the same time there are several issues that are currently critical: most species of wild relatives may be threatened by anthropogenic environmental changes, such as deforestation and climate change, and are at high risk of genetic erosion and extinction; there is a significant decline during recent decades in the international efforts for the collection of genetic resources; only 2-10% of the global germplasm collections have wild relative accessions and these comprise only a tiny proportion of wild species available. In view of these issues, the need for urgent actions for the conservation of wild relatives has been recognized by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization-FAO in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources and in several other international treaties such as the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Brazil has a rich biodiversity that demands continuous efforts for conservation and sustainable uses to mitigate the intense habitat fragmentation and alteration of natural landscapes observed in recent decades in all major biomes, such as the Amazon, Cerrado, Pantanal, Caatinga and the Atlantic forest. A large number of native plant species have been an important source of income and assurance for food security in all of these biomes. For some of this high diversity of native plant species in Brazil, including peanut (Arachis), pepper (Capsicum), cassava (Manihot), cashew (Anacardium), rubber tree (Hevea), native fruits of the Cerrado and Amazon, ornamental plants and forage plants, the wild gene pool has been collected, accessed and maintained for multiple uses, and this involved seeking the extent of genetic variation for these groups. There are, however, gaps in the collection and preservation of other groups, such as, for example, rice (Oryza), potato (Solanum), sweet potato (Ipomoea), among other species.
The Crop Wild Relatives and Native Plant Species research group aims: to develop integrated research in conservation and sustainable use of wild relatives of cultivated species and native plant species; seek new products and sources of genetic variability in the biodiversity of Brazil for agricultural development and ensuring food security; foster discussion and the exchange of information on project results, state of the art and research trends related to conservation and sustainable use of native plant species; and disseminate research results to a diverse audience.