Mutation breeding

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Mutation breeding, sometimes referred to as "variation breeding", is the process of exposing seeds to chemicals or radiation in order to generate mutants with desirable traits to be bred with other cultivars. Plants created using mutagenesis are sometimes called mutagenic plants or mutagenic seeds. From 1930 to 2014 more than 3200 mutagenic plant varietals have been released[1][2] that have been derived either as direct mutants (70%) or from their progeny (30%).[3] Crop plants account for 75% of released mutagenic species with the remaining 25% ornamentals or decorative plants.[4] However, although the FAO/IAEA reported in 2014 that over 1,000 mutant varietals of major staple crops were being grown worldwide,[1] it is unclear how many of these varieties are currently used in agriculture or horticulture around the world, as these seeds are not always identified or labeled as being mutagenic or having a mutagenic provenance.[5]


There are different kinds of mutagenic breeding such as using chemical mutagens like ethyl methanesulfonate and dimethyl sulfate, radiation and transposons are used to generate mutants. Mutation breeding is commonly used to produce traits in crops such as larger seeds, new colors, or sweeter fruits, that either cannot be found in nature or have been lost during evolution.[6]

Radiation breeding[edit]

Exposing plants to radiation is sometimes called radiation breeding and is a sub class of mutagenic breeding. Radiation breeding was discovered in the 1920s when Lewis Stadler of the University of Missouri used X-rays on maize and barley. In the case of barley, the resulting plants were white, yellow, pale yellow and some had white stripes.[7] In 1928, Stadler first published his findings on radiation-induced mutagenesis in plants.[8] During the period 1930-2004, radiation-induced mutant varieties were developed primarily using gamma rays (64%) and X-rays (22%).[4]:187

Radiation breeding may take place in atomic gardens;[8] and seeds have been sent into orbit in order to expose them to more cosmic radiation.[9]

Use of chemical mutagens[edit]

High rates of chromosome aberrations resulting from ionizing radiation and the accompanied detrimental effects made researchers look for alternate sources for inducing mutations. As a result, an array of chemical mutagens has been discovered. The most widely used chemical mutagens are alkylating agents. Ethyl methanesulfonate (EMS) is the most popular because of its effectiveness and ease of handling, especially its detoxification through hydrolysis for disposal. Nitroso compounds are the other alkylating agents widely used, but they are light-sensitive and more precautions need to be taken because of their higher volatility. EMS has become a commonly used mutagen for developing large numbers of mutants for screening such as in developing TILLING populations.[10] Although many chemicals are mutagenic, only few have been used in practical breeding as the doses need to optimised and also because the effectiveness is not high in plants for many.


According to garden historian Paige Johnson

After WWII, there was a concerted effort to find 'peaceful' uses for atomic energy. One of the ideas was to bombard plants with radiation and produce lots of mutations, some of which, it was hoped, would lead to plants that bore more heavily or were disease or cold-resistant or just had unusual colors. The experiments were mostly conducted in giant gamma gardens on the grounds of national laboratories in the US but also in Europe and countries of the former USSR.[11]

Comparison to other agronomic techniques[edit]

In the debate over Genetically Modified foods, the use of transgenic processes is often compared and contrasted with mutagenic processes.[12] While the abundance and variation of transgenic organisms in human food systems, and their effect on agricultural biodiversity, ecosystem health and human health is somewhat well documented, mutagenic plants and their role on human food systems is less well known, with one journalist writing "Though poorly known, radiation breeding has produced thousands of useful mutants and a sizable fraction of the world's crops...including varieties of rice, wheat, barley, pears, peas, cotton, peppermint, sunflowers, peanuts, grapefruit, sesame, bananas, cassava and sorghum."[7] In Canada crops generated by mutation breeding face the same regulations and testing as crops obtained by genetic engineering.[13][14][15][16] Mutagenic varieties tend to be made freely available for plant breeding, in contrast to many commercial plant varieties or germplasm that increasingly have restrictions on their use[4]:187 such as terms of use, patents and proposed genetic user restriction technologies and other intellectual property regimes and modes of enforcement.

Unlike genetically modified crops, which typically involve the insertion of one or two target genes, plants developed via mutagenic processes with random, multiple and unspecific genetic changes[17] have been discussed as a concern[18] but are not prohibited by any nation's organic standards. Reports from the US National Academy of Sciences state that there is no scientific justification for regulating genetic engineered crops while not doing so for mutation breeding crops.[5]

Several organic food and seed companies promote and sell certified organic products that were developed using both chemical and nuclear mutagenesis.[19] Several certified organic brands, whose companies support strict labeling or outright bans on GMO-crops, market their use of branded wheat and other varietal strains which were derived from mutagenic processes without any reference to this genetic manipulation.[19] These organic products range from mutagenic barley and wheat ingredient used in organic beers[20] to mutagenic varieties of grapefruits sold directly to consumers as organic.[21]

Notable mutagenized varietals[edit]


 United States

 People's Republic of China




  • Basmati 370 (short height rice mutant)[24]
  • NIAB-78 (high yielding, heat tolerant, early maturing cotton mutant)[24]
  • CM-72 (high yielding, blight resistant, desi type chickpea mutant created with 150 Gy of gamma rays)[26]
  • NM-28 (short height, uniform and ealry maturing, high seed yield mungbean mutant)[26]
  • NIAB Masoor 2006 (early maturing, high yield, resistant to disease lentil mutant created with 200 Gy of radiation)[26]


  • UNA La Molina 95 (barley mutant developed in 1995 for growing above 3,000 m)[27]
  • Centenario (Amarinth "kiwicha" mutant developed in 2006 with high quality grain and exported as a certified organic product)[27]
  • Centenario II (barley mutant developed in 2006 also for growing in the Andean highlands with high yield, high quality flour and tolerance to hail)[27]


  • RD16 and RD6 (aromatic indica rice mutant created with gamma rays)[24]

 Czech Republic

  • Diamant barley (high yield, short height mutant created with X-Rays)[28]

 United Kingdom

  • Golden Promise barley (semi-dwarf, salt tolerant mutant created with gamma rays)[29] Is used to make beer and whisky[30]


  • VND 95-20, VND-99-1 and VN121 (rice mutants developed to give increased yield, improved quality, resistance to disease and pests)[31][32]
  • DT84, DT96, DT99 and DT 2008 (soybean mutants developed using gamma rays to grow three crops a year, tolerance to heat and cold and resistance to disease)[32]

In 2014, it was reported that 17 rice mutant varietals, 10 soybean, two maize and one chrysanthemum mutant varietals had been officially released to Vietnamese farmers. 15% of rice and 50% of soybean was produced from mutant varietals.[33]

Release by nation[edit]

As of 2011 the percentage of all mutagenic varietals released globally, by country, were:[4]:187[34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b (2014) Plant Breeding and Genetics Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, Retrieved 31 July 2014
  2. ^ Schouten, H. J.; Jacobsen, E. (2007). "Are Mutations in Genetically Modified Plants Dangerous?". Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology. 2007: 1. doi:10.1155/2007/82612. 
  3. ^ M.K. Maluszynsk, K. Nichterlein, L. van Zanten & B.S. Ahloowalia (2000). "Officially released mutant varieties – the FAO/IAEA Database". Mutation Breeding Review (12): 1–84. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Ahloowali, B.S. (2004). "Global impact of mutation-derived varieties" (PDF). Euphytica. 135: 187–204. doi:10.1023/b:euph.0000014914.85465.4f. Retrieved 20 April 2011. 
  5. ^ a b Kaskey, Jack (21 November 2013) The Scariest Veggies of Them All Bloomberg Business Week, Retrieved 31 July 2014
  6. ^ "New Citrus Variety Released by UC Riverside is Very Sweet, Juicy and Low-seeded". 
  7. ^ a b Broad, William J. (28 August 2007). "Useful Mutants, Bred With Radiation". New York Times. Retrieved 20 April 2011. 
  8. ^ a b Atomic Gardens: Public Perceptions & Public Policy, Life Sciences Foundation Magazine, Spring 2012.
  9. ^ Smith, Peter (2011-04-12). "How Radiation is Changing the Foods that You Eat". GOOD. GOOD Worldwide, Inc. Retrieved 2011-07-16. 
  10. ^ Pathirana, R. Plant Mutation Breeding in Agriculture. CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources. 2011 6 No 032
  11. ^ Johnson, Paige. "Atomic Gardens". Retrieved 20 April 2011. 
  12. ^ UK Government Science Review First Report, Prepared by the GM Science Review panel (July 2003). Chairman Professor Sir David King, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government, P 9: " is necessary to produce about 100 GM plants to obtain one that has the desirable characters for its use as a basis of a new GM crop variety. ... Most of these so-called conventional plant breeding methods (such as gene transfer by pollination, mutation breeding, cell selection and induced polyploidy) have a substantially greater discard rate. Mutation breeding, for instance, involves the production of unpredictable and undirected genetic changes and many thousands, even millions, of undesirable plants are discarded in order to identify plants with suitable qualities for further breeding."
  13. ^ The Canadian regulatory system is based on whether a product has novel features regardless of method of origin. In other words, a product is regulated as genetically modified if it carries some trait not previously found in the species whether it was generated using mutation breeding or genetic engineering (or any other method including selective breeding).
  14. ^ Evans, Brent and Lupescu, Mihai (15 July 2012) Canada - Agricultural Biotechnology Annual – 2012 GAIN (Global Agricultural Information Network) report CA12029, United States Department of Agriculture, Foreifn Agricultural Service, Retrieved 7 August 2014
  15. ^ McHugen, Alan (September 14, 2000). "Chapter 1: Hors-d'oeuvres and entrees/What is genetic modification? What are GMOs?". Pandora's Picnic Basket. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0198506744. 
  16. ^ Rowland, G.G. (2009). "Chapter 110: The Effect of Plants With Novel Traits (PNT) Regulation on Mutation Breeding in Canada". In Shu, Q. Y. Induced Plant Mutations in the Genomics Era. Plant Breeding Section, Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, Austria. pp. 423–424. ISBN 978-92-5-106324-8. 
  17. ^ Useful Mutants, Bred With Radiation, by William J. Broad, New York Times, August 28, 2007.
  18. ^ Discussion Document Excluded Methods Terminology, National Organic Standards Board GMO ad hoc Subcommittee paper, U.S. Agricultural Marketing Service, published February 6, 2013.
  19. ^ a b Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods, By Nina V. Fedoroff and Nancy Marie Brow, pg. 17, Joseph Henry Press, 2004.
  20. ^ Golden Promise Organic Ale
  21. ^ Wasatch Organic Rio Red Grapefruit
  22. ^ Kotobuki, Kazuo. "Japanese pear tree named `Osa Gold`". Retrieved 20 April 2011. 
  23. ^ "Lift-off for Chinese space potato". BBC News. 12 February 2007. 
  24. ^ a b c d e Ahloowalia, B. S.; Maluszynski, M. (2001). "Production Process in Old and Modern Spring Barley Varieties". Euphytica. 118 (2): 167. doi:10.1023/A:1004162323428. 
  25. ^ "Genetic Improvement of Durum Wheat in Casaccia. The Creso Case" (PDF). 
  26. ^ a b c (2008) NIAB - Plant Breeding & Genetics Division, Achievements Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology, Faisalabad, Pakistan, Retrieved 16 May 2013
  27. ^ a b c (2012) Improved barley varieties - Feeding people from the equator to the arctic Joint FAO/IAEAProgramme, Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, Retrieved 25 October 2013
  28. ^ Lipavsky, J. Petr, J. and Hradecká, D, (2002) "Production Process in Old and Modern Spring Barley Varieties" Die Bodenkultur, 53 (1) 2, Page 19
  29. ^ Forster, B. P. (2001). "Mutation genetics of salt tolerance in barley: An assessment of Golden Promise and other semi-dwarf mutants". Euphytica. 120 (3): 317–328. doi:10.1023/A:1017592618298. 
  30. ^ Broad, William (2007-08-28). "Useful Mutants, Bred With Radiation". New York Times. Retrieved 2013-06-19. 
  31. ^ (2012) Successful Mutation Breeding Programmes in Vietnam Joint FAO/IAEAProgramme, Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, Retrieved 25 October 2013
  32. ^ a b Vinh, M.Q. et al (2009) Current Status and Research Directions of Induced Mutation Application to Seeds Program in Vietnam in Induced Plant Mutations in the Genomics Era, FAO of the UN, Rome, Pp 341-345, Web page version retrieved 25 October 2013
  33. ^ (2014) Successful Mutation Breeding Programmes in Vietnam Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, Retrieved 31 July 2014
  34. ^ Pathirana, Ranjith (September 6, 2011) Plant mutation breeding in agriculture CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources (CAB International); 20116 (032): 1 – 20; doi:10.1079/PAVSNNR20116032; ISSN 1749-8848; Retrieved August 6, 2014

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