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Sep 012014
 
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Scouring the planet for breeding solutions

Bindiganavile Vivek

Bindiganavile Vivek

Bindiganavile Vivek (pictured) is a maize breeder working at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), based in Hyderabad, India. For the past five years, Vivek and his team have been developing drought-tolerant germplasm for Asia using relatively new molecular-breeding approaches – marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS), applied in a genomewide selection (GWS) mode. Their work in the Asian Maize Drought-Tolerance (AMDROUT) project is implemented through GCP’s Maize Research Initiative, with Vivek as the AMDROUT Principal Investigator.

Driven by consumer demand for drought-tolerant maize varieties in Asia, the AMDROUT research team has focussed on finding suitable drought-tolerant donors from Africa and Mexico. Most of these donors are white-seeded, yet in Asia, market and consumer preferences predominantly favour yellow-seeded maize. Moreover, maize varieties are very site-specific and this poses yet another challenge. Clearly, breeding is needed for any new target environments, all the while also with an eye on pronounced market and consumer preferences.

(1) Amazing maize and its maze of colour. Maize comes in many colours, hues and shapes. (2) Steeped in saffron: from this marvellous maize mix and mosaic, the Asian market favours yellow maize.

(1) Amazing maize and its maze of colour. Maize comes in many colours and hues. (2) Steeped in saffron: from this marvellous maize mix and mosaic, the flavour in Asia favours yellow maize.

Stalked by drought, tough to catch, but still the next big thing

Around 80 per cent of the 19 million hectares of maize in South and Southeast Asia is grown under rainfed conditions, and is therefore susceptible to drought, when rains fail. Tackling drought can therefore provide excellent returns to rainfed maize research and development investments. As we shall see later, Vivek and his team have already made significant progress in developing drought-tolerant maize.

Drough in Asia_Vivek slide_GRM 2013_w

The stark reality of drought is illustrated in this warning sign on a desiccated drought-scorched landscape, showing the severity of drought in Asia

But they are after a tough target: drought tolerance is dodgy since it is a highly polygenic trait, making it difficult for plant scientists to pinpoint genes for the trait (see this video with an example from rice in Africa). In other words, to make a plant drought-tolerant, many genes have to be incorporated into a new variety. As one would expect, the degree of difficulty is directly proportional to the number of genes involved. In the private-sector seed industry, MARS  (PDF) has been successfully used in achieving rapid progress towards high grain yield under optimal growth conditions. Therefore, a similar approach could be used to speed up the process of introducing drought tolerance into Asian crops – the reason why the technique is now being used by this project.

AMDROUT Meeting Penang Dec2010_w

More than India: the AMDROUT project also comprises research teams in China, Indonesia, Thailand, The Philippines and Vietnam. In this photo taken during the December 2010 annual project meeting in Penang, Malaysia, the AMDROUT team assessed the progress made by each country team, and  team members were trained in data management and drought phenotyping. They also realised that there was a need for more training in genomic selection, and did something about it, as we shall see in the next photo. Pictured here, left to right: Luo Liming, Tan jing Li, Villamor Ladia, V Vengadessan, Muhammad Adnan, Le Quy Kha, Pichet Grudloyma, Vivek, IS Singh, Dan Jeffers (back), Eureka Ocampo (front), Amara Traisiri and Van Vuong.

The rise of maize: clear chicken-and-egg sequence…

Vivek says that the area used for growing maize in India has expanded rapidly in recent years. In some areas, maize is in fact displacing sorghum and rice. And the maize juggernaut rolls beyond India to South and Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, for example, the government is actively promoting the expansion of  maize acreage, again displacing rice. Other countries involved in the push for maize include China, Indonesia and The Philippines.

So what’s driving this shift in cropping to modern drought-tolerant maize? The curious answer to this question lies in food-chain dynamics. According to Vivek, the dramatic increase in demand for meat – particularly poultry – is the driver, with 70 percent of maize produced going to animal feed, and 70 percent of that going into the poultry sector alone.

GCP gave us a good start… the AMDROUT project laid the foundation for other CIMMYT projects”

 Show and tell: posting and sharing dividends

As GCP approaches its sunset in December 2014, Vivek reports that all the AMDROUT milestones have been achieved. Good progress has been made in developing early-generation yellow drought-tolerant inbred lines. The use of MARS by the team – something of a first in the public sector – has proved to be useful. In addition, regional scientists have benefitted from broad training from experts on breeding trial evaluation and genomic selection (photo-story on continuous capacity-building). “GCP gave us a good start. We now need to expand and build on this,” says Vivek.

AMDROUT trainees at Cambridge_w

AMDROUT calls in on Cambridge for capacity building. AMDROUT country partners were at Cambridge University, UK, in March 2013, for training in quantitative genetics, genomic selection and association mapping. This was a second training session for the team, the first having been September 2012 in India.
Pictured here, left to right – front row: Sri Sunarti, Neni Iriany, Hongmei Chen;
middle row: Ian Mackay (Cambridge), Muhammad Azrai, Le Quy Kha, Artemio Salazar;
back row: Roy Efendy, Alison Bentley (who helped organise, run and teach on the course, alongside Ian) and Suriphat Thaitad.AMDROUT country partners are from China’s Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences (YAAS); the Indonesian Cereals Research Institute (ICERI); the Institute of Plant Breeding at the Unversity of Philppines at Los Baños (UPLB); Thailand’s Nakhon Sawan Field Crops Research Center (NSFCRC); Vietnam’s National Maize Research Institute (NMRI); and private-sector seed companies in India, such as Krishidhan Seeds.Curious on who proposed to whom for this AMDROUT–Cambridge get-together? We have the answer: a Cambridge callout announced the training, and AMDROUT answered by calling in, since course topics were directly relevant to AMDROUT’s research approach. 

 

 

According to Vivek, the AMDROUT project laid the foundation for other CIMMYT projects  such as the Affordable, Accessible, Asian (AAA) Drought-Tolerant Maize (popularly known as the ‘Triple-A project’) funded by the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture. This Triple-A project is building on the success of AMDROUT, developing yet more germplasm for drought tolerance, and going further down the road to develop hybrids.

 

Outputs from the AMDROUT project will be further refined, tested and deployed through other projects”

Increasing connections, and further into the future

Partly through GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP), another area of success has been in informatics. Several systems such as the Integrated Breeding FieldBook, the database Maize Finder and the International Maize Information System (IMIS) now complement each other, and allow for an integrated data system.

There is now also an International Maize Consortium for Asia (IMIC–Asia), coordinated by CIMMYT, comprising a group of 30 commercial companies (ranging from small to large; local to transnational). Through this consortium, CIMMYT is developing maize hybrids for specific environmental conditions, including drought. IMIC–Asia will channel and deploy the germplasms produced by AMDROUT and other projects, with a view to assuring impact in farmers’ fields.

Overall, Vivek’s experience with GCP has been very positive, with the funding allowing him to focus on the agreed milestones, but with adaptations along the way when need arose: Vivek says that GCP was open and flexible regarding necessary mid-course corrections that the team needed to make in their research.

But what next with GCP coming to a close? Outputs from the AMDROUT project will be further refined, tested and deployed through other projects such as Triple A, thus assuring product  sustainability and delivery after GCP winds up.

Links

As our Maize Research Initiative does not have a Product Delivery Coordinator, Vivek graciously stepped in to coordinate the maize research group at our General Research Meeting in 2013, for which we thank him yet again. Below are slides summing up the products from this research, and the status of the projects then.

Aug 312014
 
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 Crop disease costs farmers billions of dollars each year in lost yields and inputs. For farming communities in developing countries, such losses can mean deepening poverty, food insecurity, and the resulting poor nutrition and health. 

In Africa alone, it is estimated that crop pests and diseases lead to losing more than half the crops planted. Added to this, some fungal pathogens cause toxic compounds to accumulate in food. In extreme cases, crop diseases have led to widespread famine, social disruption and loss of life – the Irish Potato Famine in the 19th century is a case in point.

Overcoming this reality is what motivates plant pathologists like Rebecca Nelson (pictured below, and profiled here), of Cornell University, USA. For the past quarter century, Rebecca has worked across four continents to understand the ways in which plants defend themselves against diseases.

Rebecca Nelson

Rebecca Nelson

“Pesticides are the dominant way in which pests and diseases are managed, in spite of the many downsides to this approach,” says Rebecca. “For resource-limited farmers, this is often not an option. For those who use pesticides, the health impacts hit harder in the tropics, where protective clothing is not the norm. That’s why we’re trying to understand how plants naturally defend themselves, so that we can then tap into this, and learn from nature to breed crops that are resistant to disease.”

With this premise and funding from GCP, Rebecca collaborated with an interdisciplinary international team from USA, The Philippines, Indonesia and Kenya to identify genes associated with disease resistance in maize and rice. Although the project itself ended in 2009, that was far from the end of the story. In many ways, the end of the GCP project was in fact the beginning of life-changing chapters that followed. Thus far, the project has led to several locally developed disease-resistant varieties of rice in Indonesia and maize in Kenya.

We now already know quite a lot about the genetic architecture of several critical diseases, and this knowledge is enough for us to get started on improving the efficiency of resistance breeding”

Dissecting resistance – the genie in the genes
To understand the genetic reason behind resistance, Rebecca and her team used a range of genetic tools to dissect various forms of genetic resistance, understand the mechanisms that the plants use to reduce pathogen success, and identify the genes that provide resistance.

To create a near isogenic line, an organism with the phenotype of interest, often a plant, is crossed with a  standard line of the same plant. The F1 generation is selfed to produce the F2 generation.

NILS explained: To create a near-isogenic line, a plant with the phenotype of interest is crossed with a standard line of the same plant. The F1 (1st filial) generation is thereafter selfed (ie, crossbred within itself) to produce the F2 (2nd filial) generation.

“There has been a lot of work done on sequencing the genomes of rice and maize, so we tapped into this work and combined our team expertise in genetics, pathology and plant breeding to help identify these disease-resistance genes,” says Rebecca. “We used recombination breeding and other genetic techniques to dissect the genomes and identify specific regions that convey disease resistance. We now already know quite a lot about the genetic architecture of several critical diseases, and this knowledge is enough for us to get started on improving the efficiency of resistance breeding. In addition, we’re identifying the genes and the ways they work, so as to interrupt pathogenesis [the manner in which a disease develops]. This involved breeding near-isogenic lines of rice and maize with the genes of interest, infecting these plants with a disease of interest, and monitoring their resistance in the field.”

Identifying genes responsible for resistance
Through this process, the team identified several genomic regions and specific genes responsible for protecting resistant rice plants against rice blast and sheath blight and resistant maize plants against northern and southern leaf blight, grey leaf spot and ear rot.

An underlying objective of the project was to also investigate if some of these genes were responsible not for just one specific disease, but for multiple diseases.

“We were intrigued by the idea of multiple disease resistance, because farmers face a range of diseases in their fields. In maize, we identified a gene associated with resistance to three diseases – southern leaf blight, northern leaf blight and grey leaf spot.”

While the team found several gene loci in both maize and rice that provide resistance to more than one disease, they have so far found little cross-benefit from the work on the two crops. But from their research they have ‘handles’ on the rich diversity of resistance loci in each of the two crops.

“Plant breeders will be able to use this information to breed crops for multiple disease resistance, increasing the security of the crop and farmers’ livelihoods,” says Rebecca.

A 2008 update: A slide from Rebecca's presentation at the GCP General Research Meeting in September of that year.

A 2008 update: a slide from Rebecca’s presentation at the GCP General Research Meeting in September of that year.

Working with that great group of people and being a part of the larger GCP family, which comprises of an amazing talent pool, was really valuable.”

Collaborating with old friends, and new
Rebecca credits her collaborators and support from the GCP family for the success of the project, saying none of the outcomes could have been achieved without everyone playing their part.  “Working with that great group of people and being a part of the larger GCP family, which comprises of an amazing talent pool, was really valuable. I really appreciated that GCP supported my work at a time when I was making a transition in my career. GCP gave me and my team time and inspiration to find our feet. All of our labs are now well established, and we have since been able to diversify our funding sources.”

Project scientists from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the Indonesian Centre for Agricultural Resources Research and Development (ICABIOGRAD) reflect the involvement of country agricultural research programmes. Other partners included the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and four universities: Bogor Agriculture University in Indonesia and Colorado State, Cornell and North Carolina State Universities, all in USA.

Masdiar Bustamam

A highlight of the project for Rebecca was reconnecting with old colleagues at IRRI, where she had previously worked for eight years. “It was great to involve my IRRI mentor, Hei Leung, and our collaborator Jan Leach, as well as several other IRRI people whom I worked with on several rice disease-resistance projects. It was also great to involve Masdiar Bustamam of ICABIOGRAD. My team at IRRI had worked with her laboratory as she was getting it started. It was such a pleasure to see how far she and her lab had come since our earlier collaboration. They were able to make a significant contribution to the project in advancing the understanding of inheritance of rice blast and sheath blast resistance, and they developed germplasm that has really good resistance to these diseases.”

Having a limited background in maize research before the project began, Rebecca was grateful for her close collaboration with KARI’s James Gethi, who was a lead researcher in Kenya. At the time of the proposal, James was a recent Cornell graduate who was returning home to contribute to his nation’s crop-research capabilities.

“James and I were both getting our maize programmes going and the support was terrific for our labs and for our collaboration. We’ve continued to work together since our GCP project wrapped up.”

Rebecca (left) on a field visit to Kenya in September 2006. On the left is John Okalembo of Moi University, with James Gethi behind the camera.

A partnership of long standing: Rebecca (left) on a field visit to Kenya in September 2006. On the right is John Okalembo of Moi University, with James Gethi behind the camera.

You can’t see it, you can’t taste it, you can’t feel it. The population is being poisoned without knowing about it.”

Continuing projects, tracking a silent cereal killer, and spreading a positive epidemic
One such project, which Rebecca and James have worked tirelessly on, is understanding genetic resistance to aflatoxins in maize. “We were travelling through Kenya together in 2005 when there was an aflatoxin outbreak,” remembers Rebecca. “Ever since, we’ve been obsessed with the problem.”

Aflatoxin is the most carcinogenic natural substance known. It is produced by species of fungi, especially Aspergillus flavus, which can colonise and contaminate grain before harvest or during storage. Maize is particularly susceptible to infection during drought, or when it is attacked by insects, or improperly stored. In 2004, 125 people died in Kenya after eating maize with very high aflatoxin levels.

“This food-safety problem is rigorously and carefully managed in developed countries but less so in cash-strapped developing nations,” says Rebecca. “In tropical countries where maize and groundnuts are often grown under stress and stored under suboptimal conditions, it is a huge problem. Yet you can’t see it, you can’t taste it, you can’t feel it. The population is being poisoned without knowing about it.”

Rebecca and James spent years trying to get support for their work on aflatoxin – the silent cereal killer – and trying to get funding for a graduate student who could take a lead. They made headway while Rebecca was on sabbatical at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA) Hub in Nairobi. BecA eventually received a major grant from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), and Rebecca says a strong team is now tackling the issue.

We’re indebted to GCP for bringing us together to tackle cereal diseases”

“One of our big goals was to support a promising young talent named Samuel Mutiga. I’m delighted to say that he is just finishing his PhD at Cornell now, and has done some terrific work on aflatoxin in collaboration with James and BecA.”

Samuel is one of several PhD students at Cornell who are passionate about improving food safety in Africa by beating the aflatoxin problem. “One American students is working with a Kenyan student in Nairobi to develop an improved spectroscopic grain sorter for people processing their maize at small grain mills. This will allow them to remove the toxic kernels before they mill and eat the grain, something that cannot be done visually.”

Rebecca says it’s “exciting to see this new generation take on this huge challenge. There are more scientists who are coming on board and sharing their expertise. James and I are gratified that we helped ‘infect’ these people with the conviction that something needs to be done and can be done. We’re indebted to GCP for bringing us together to tackle cereal diseases.”

 Links

 

Aug 302014
 
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In ancient Europe, Timbuktu, in Northern Mali, gained fame as a fabled city of knowledge and learning at a far end of the world – snuggled in the Sahara Desert, and almost impossible to get to. And so, then as in our times, the phrase ‘As far as Timbuktu’ came to mean a place that is unimaginably far away, is completely foreign, or is unreachable – at the other end of the earth. Sitting on the left bank of the River Niger on the southern edge of the Sahara, it was not only a seat of learning in the ancient world, but also an important trade and travel stop for merchants as they sought refuge from the desert.

Niaba Teme

Niaba Témé

Timbuktu ticks on today. And if you strike out south and travel 450km from Timbuktu, you would come to the village of Yendouma-Sogol. This is where Niaba Témé, a plant breeder at Mali’s L’Institut d’économie rurale (IER), was born and grew up on the family farm, and where his saga with sorghum began.

“We grew dryland crops like millet, sorghum, cowpeas, groundnuts, Bambara nuts, sesame and dah,” says Niaba. “I used to love harvesting the millet and helping my mother with her groundnut crops.”

Niaba describes the geography and climate of the region as being very harsh. Sandstone cliffs soar from the dusty sun-scorched lower plains where temperatures are only slightly lower than the plateaus, which bake in the intense heat – the daily temperature rarely falls below 30oC. As there is no major river, every single drop of the 500 millimetres of rainfall received each wet season is used for drinking, cropping and livestock husbandry.

“The rains during July and August make farming possible for our people,” says Niaba.“If we did not receive those rains, our crops would suffer and in some years, we were not able to harvest anything.”

Niaba says these crop failures contributed in part to his choosing a career where he could help farmers, like his parents and siblings, protect themselves from the risks of drought and extreme temperatures.

With molecular markers, you can easily see if the plant you’ve bred has the gene related to drought tolerance without having to grow the plant and or risk missing the trait through visual inspection.”

Breeding more sorghum with less water
For the past four years, Niaba and his team at IER have been collaborating with Jean-François Rami and his team at France’s Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement (CIRAD), with support from Syngenta complemented by other GCP funding on a project to improve sorghum grain yield and quality for West African farmers.

A sorghum farmer in Mali.

A sorghum farmer in Mali.

Sorghum is an important staple crop for Mali. It is used to make to (a thick porridge), couscous, as well as malted and local beer beverages. “Anytime I talk with farmers, they are always asking for higher-yielding lines and lines that can produce sustainable yields during drought, or do so with less water,” says Niaba. “Since 2008, with the help of CIRAD and Syngenta, we have been learning how to use molecular markers to identify parental lines which are more tolerant and better adapted to the arable and volatile environment of Mali and surrounding areas which receive between 600 and 800 millimetres of rainfall per year. Using molecular markers is new and exciting for us as it will speed up the breeding process. With molecular markers, you can easily see if the plant you’ve bred has the gene related to drought tolerance without having to grow the plant and or risk missing the trait through visual inspection.”

In 2010, Niaba obtained GCP funding to carry out similar research with CIRAD and collaborators at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Africa. “In this project, we are trying to enhance sorghum grain yield and quality for the Sudano-Sahelian zone of West Africa using the backcross nested association mapping [BCNAM] approach. This involves using an elite recurrent parent that is already adapted to local drought conditions, then crossing it with several different specific or donor parents to build up larger breeding populations. The benefit of this approach is it can lead to detecting elite varieties much faster.”

AB_Mali 2009 (3) 243_w

Niaba (foreground) examining a sorghum panicle at trials in Mali in 2009.

I spent eight months in Hyderabad. It was the first time I had to speak English every day… I spent almost 11 years at the University of Texas Tech, and enjoyed every moment… We have been collaborating with researchers…  in Australia “

Traversing the world seeking knowledge
But to backtrack a bit and find out how Niaba got to where he is today, let’s return to the family farm where he grew up, and where his career inspiration was forged and fired.

With a family background in farming now coupled with a keen interest in science, young Niaba enrolled at L’Institut Polytechnique Rural de Formation et de Recherche Appliquée (IPR/IFRA) at Katiboutou, in Eastern Bamako, Mali to study agronomy. He then went to IER, where, after two years there, he was offered a scholarship to study plant breeding in India.

“I spent eight months in Hyderabad. It was the first time I had to speak English every day so I was enrolled for an intensive English course at the University of Ousmania, Hyderabad, India, for the first two months. I then went on to do six months intensive training in the ICRISAT labs, learning how to set up experiments and collect and analyse data.”

His zest for plant breeding research and knowledge still unquenched, Niaba sought yet another intensive training course, this time in USA. During his time there, he made an impression on local researchers and it wasn’t long before he returned to complete his Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD in Agronomy at the University of Texas Tech, Texas. “I spent almost 11 years at the University of Texas Tech, and enjoyed every moment. I love the opportunities and freedom that USA offers.”

Despite this attraction, Niaba remained true to Timbuktu and Mali. He left Texas and returned to Mali in January 2007 , where he was rapidly recruited by IER to take charge of their new biotechnology lab at Le Centre Regional de Recherche Agromique (CRRA). Shortly after, he became involved with GCP, working on three projects, one of which would take this native from near (or as far away as?) Timbuktu to yet another far-away place at the opposite end of the world known as Down Under – Australia.

“We have been collaborating with researchers at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in Queensland, and the University of Queensland, Australia, since 2009, to introduce the stay-green drought-resistant gene into our local sorghum varieties.” says Niaba.

 

Left to right: Niaba Teme (Mali), David Jordan (Australia), Sidi Coulibaly (Mali) and Andrew Borrell (Australia) visiting an experiment at Hermitage Research Facility in Queensland, Australia.

Left to right: Niaba Témé (Mali), David Jordan (Australia), Sidi Coulibaly (Mali) and Andrew Borrell (Australia) visiting an experiment at Hermitage Research Facility in Queensland, Australia.

Sorghum staying-greener with less water
Stay-green is a post-flowering drought adaptation trait that has contributed significantly to sorghum yield stability in northeastern Australia and southern USA for the last two decades. The project has three objectives:

  • To evaluate the stay-green drought resistance mechanism in plant architectures and genetic backgrounds appropriate to Mali
  • To develop sorghum germplasm populations enriched for stay-green genes that also carry genes for adaptation to cropping environments in Mali.
  • To improve capacity of Mali researchers by carrying out training activities for African sorghum researchers in drought physiology and selection for drought adaptation in sorghum.

“In 2012 a colleague and myself were invited to Australia to take this training by Andrew Borrell and David Jordan,” says Niaba. “We learnt about association mapping, population genetics and diversity, molecular breeding, crop modelling using climate forecasts and sorghum physiology, plus a lot more! It was intense but rewarding, more so the fact that we have developed these new drought-tolerant crops which will enhance food security for my country.”

Thus ends today’s chapter in Niaba’s saga with sorghum. We expect to hear more on the latest from Niaba at the GCP General Research Meeting  (GRM) in October, so watch this space!

Meantime, see his slides from GRM 2013 below.

Links

 

 

Aug 292014
 
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One of the greatest challenges of our time is growing more crops to feed more people, but using less water

Sorghum is one of the most ‘efficient’ crops in terms of needing less water and nutrients to grow. And although it is naturally well-adapted to sun-scorched drylands, there is still a need to improve its yield and broad adaptability in these harsh environments. In West Africa, for example, while sorghum production has doubled in the last 20 years, its yield has remained stagnant – and low.

The GCP Sorghum Research Initiative comprises several projects, which are exploring ways to use molecular-breeding techniques to improve sorghum yields, particularly in drylands. All projects are interdisciplinary international collaborations with an original focus on Mali, where sorghum-growing areas are large and rainfall is getting more erratic and variable. Through the stay-green project, the research has since broadened to also cover Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Kenya, Niger and Sudan.

Using molecular markers is new and exciting for us as it will speed up the breeding process. With molecular markers, you can easily see if the plant you’ve bred has the desired characteristics without having to grow the plant and or risk missing the trait through visual inspection.”

What’s MARS got to do with it?

Niaba Témé is a local plant breeder and researcher at Mali’s L’Institut d’économie rurale (IER). He grew up in a farming community on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, where crops would constantly fail during drier-than-normal seasons.

Niaba Teme

Niaba Témé

Niaba says these crop failures were in part his inspiration for a career where he could help farmers like his parents and siblings protect themselves from the risks of drought and extreme temperatures.

For the past four years, Niaba and his team at IER have been collaborating with Jean-François Rami and his team at France’s Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement (CIRAD), to improve sorghum grain yield and quality for West African farmers. The work is funded by the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture.

“With the help of CIRAD and Syngenta, we have been learning how to use molecular markers to improve breeding efficiency of sorghum varieties more adapted to the variable environment of Mali and surrounding areas which receive less than 600 millimetres of rainfall per year,” he says.

Jean-François Rami

Jean-François Rami

“Using molecular markers is new and exciting for us as it will speed up the breeding process. With molecular markers, you can easily see if the plant you’ve bred has the desired characteristics without having to grow the plant and or risk missing the trait through visual inspection.”

Jean-François Rami, who is the project’s Principal Investigator, has been impressed by the progress made so far. Jean-François is also GCP’s Product Delivery Coordinator for sorghum.

“Since its inception, the project has progressed very well,” says Jean-François. “With the help of the IER team, we’ve been able to develop two bi-parental populations from elite local varieties, targeting two different environments of sorghum cropping areas in Mali. We’ve then been able to use molecular markers through a process called marker-assisted recurrent selection [MARS] to identify and monitor key regions of the genome in consecutive breeding generations.”

The collaboration with Syngenta came from a common perspective and understanding of what approach could be effectively deployed to rapidly deliver varieties with the desired characteristics.

“Syngenta came with their long experience in implementing MARS in maize. They advised on how to execute the programme and avoid critical pitfalls. They offered to us the software they have developed for the analysis of data which allowed the project team to start the programme immediately,” says Jean-François.

Like all GCP projects, capacity building is a large part of the MARS project. Jean-François says GCP has invested a lot to strengthen IER’s infrastructure and train field technicians, researchers and young scientists. But GCP is not the only player in this: “CIRAD has had a long collaboration in sorghum research in Mali and training young scientists has always been part of our mission. We’ve hosted several IER students here in France and we are interacting with our colleagues in Mali either over the phone or travelling to Mali to give technical workshops in molecular breeding. The Integrated Breeding Platform [IBP] has also been a breakthrough for the project, providing to the project team breeding services, data management tools, and a training programme – the Integrated Breeding Multiyear Course [IB–MYC].”

We don’t have these types of molecular-breeding resources available in Mali, so it’s really exciting to be a part of this project… the approach has the potential to halve the time it takes to develop local sorghum varieties with improved yield and adaptability to drought… one of the great successes of the project has been to bring together sorghum research groups in Mali in a common effort to develop new genetic resources for sorghum breeding.”

Back-to-back: more for Mali’s national breeding programme

On the back of the MARS project, Niaba successfully obtained GCP funding in 2010 to carry out similar research with CIRAD and collaborators in Africa at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

“In this project, we are trying to enhance sorghum grain yield and quality for the Sudano-Sahelian zone of West Africa using the backcross nested association mapping (BCNAM) approach,” explains Niaba, who is the Principal Investigator of the BCNAM project. “This involves using an elite recurrent parent that is already adapted to local drought conditions. The benefit of this approach is that it can lead to detecting elite varieties much faster.”

Kirsten Vom Brocke (CIRAD) Michel Vaksmann (CIRAD) Mamoutou Kouressy (IER) Eva Weltzien (ICRISAT) Jean-Francois Rami (CIRAD) Denis Lespinasse (Syngenta) Niaba Teme (IER) Ndeye Ndack Diop (GCP) Ibrahima Sissoko (Icrisat) Fred Rattunde (Icrisat)

A ‘sample’ of the rich mix of international partners in sorghum research: Left to right – Kirsten Vom Brocke (CIRAD), Michel Vaksmann (CIRAD), Mamoutou Kouressy (IER), Eva Weltzien (ICRISAT), Jean-François Rami (CIRAD), Denis Lespinasse (Syngenta), Niaba Teme (IER), Ndeye Ndack Diop (GCP Capacity Building Leader), Ibrahima Sissoko and Fred Rattunde (both from ICRISAT).

Eva Weltzien has been the Principal Scientist for ICRISAT’s sorghum breeding programme in Mali since 1998. She says the project aligned with much of the work her team had been doing, so it made sense to collaborate considering the new range of sorghum genetic diversity that this approach aims to use.

“We’ve been working with Niaba’s team to develop 100 lines for 50 populations from backcrosses carried out with 30 recurrent parents,” explains Eva. “These lines are being genotyped by CIRAD. We will then be able to use molecular markers to determine if any of these lines have the traits we want. We don’t have these types of molecular-breeding resources available in Mali, so it’s really exciting to be a part of this project.”

Eva Weltzien (holding sheet of paper) presenting to Mali's Minister of Agriculture (in white cap) a graph on the superiority of new guinea race hybrids. Also on display are panicles and seed of the huybrids and released varieties of sorghum in Mali. The occasion was an annual field day at ICRISAT's research station at Samanko, Mali.

An annual field day at ICRISAT’s research station at Samanko, Mali. Eva Weltzien (holding sheet of paper) showing Mali’s Minister of Agriculture, Tiemoko Sangare, (in white cap) a graph on the superiority of new guinea race hybrids. Also on display are panicles and seed of the hybrids and released varieties of sorghum in Mali.

Eva says that the approach has the potential to halve the time it takes to develop local sorghum varieties with improved yield and adaptability to drought.

For Jean-François, one of the great successes of the project has been to bring together sorghum research groups in Mali in a common effort to develop new genetic resources for sorghum breeding.

“This project has strengthened the IER and ICRISAT partnerships around a common resource. The large multiparent population that has been developed is analysed collectively to decipher the genetic control of important traits for sorghum breeding in Mali,” says Jean-François.

 Plants with this ‘stay-green’ trait keep their leaves and stems green during the grain-filling period. Typically, these plants have stronger stems, higher grain yield and larger grain.”

Sorghum staying green and strong, with less water

In February 2012, Niaba and his colleague, Sidi B Coulibaly, were invited to Australia as part of another Sorghum Research Initiative project they had been collaborating on with CIRAD, Australia’s University of Queensland and the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (QDAFF).

“We were invited to Australia for training by Andrew Borrell and David Jordan, who are co-Principal Investigators of the GCP stay-green sorghum project,” says Niaba.

Left to right: Niaba Teme (Mali), David Jordan (Australia), Sidi Coulibaly (Mali) and Andrew Borrell (Australia) visiting an experiment at Hermitage Research Facility in Queensland, Australia.

Left to right: Niaba Témé (Mali), David Jordan (Australia), Sidi Coulibaly (Mali) and Andrew Borrell (Australia) visiting an experiment at Hermitage Research Facility in Queensland, Australia.

“We learnt about association mapping, population genetics and diversity, molecular breeding, crop modelling using climate forecasts, and sorghum physiology, plus a lot more. It was intense but rewarding – more so the fact that we understood the mechanics of these new stay-green crops we were evaluating back in Mali.”

It wasn't all work and there was clearly also time to play, as we can see her., Sidi Coulibaly and Niaba Teme visiting with the Borrell family in Queensland, Australia.

It wasn’t all work and there was clearly also time to play, as we can see here., where Sidi Coulibaly and Niaba Témé are visiting the Borrell family in Queensland, Australia.

Stay-green is a post-flowering drought adaptation trait that has contributed significantly to sorghum yield stability in northeastern Australia and southern USA over the last two decades.

Andrew has been researching how the drought-resistant trait functions for almost 20 years, including gene discovery. In 2010, he and his colleague, David Jordan, successfully obtained funding from GCP to collaborate with IER and CIRAD to develop and evaluate drought-adapted stay-green sorghum germplasm for Africa and Australia.

“Stay-green sorghum grows a canopy that is about 10 per cent smaller than other lines. So it uses less water before flowering,” explains Andrew. “More water is then available during the grain-filling period. Plants with this ‘stay-green’ trait keep their leaves and stems green during the grain-filling period. Typically, these plants have stronger stems, higher grain yield and larger grain.”

Andrew says the project is not about introducing stay-green into African germplasm, but rather, enriching the pre-breeding material in Mali for this drought-adaptive trait.

The project has three objectives:

  1. To evaluate the stay-green drought-resistance mechanism in plant architecture and genetic backgrounds appropriate to Mali.
  2. To develop sorghum germplasm populations enriched for stay-green genes that also carry genes for adaptation to cropping environments in Mali.
  3. To improve the capacity of Malian researchers by carrying out training activities for African sorghum researchers in drought physiology and selection for drought adaptation in sorghum.

…we have found that the stay-green trait can improve yields by up to 30 percent in drought conditions with very little downside during a good year, so we are hoping that these new lines will display similar characteristics”

Expansion and extension:  beyond Mali to the world

Andrew explains that there are two phases to the stay-green project. The project team first focused on Mali. During this phase, the Australian team enriched Malian germplasm with stay-green, developing introgression lines, recombinant inbred lines and hybrids. Some of this material was field-tested by Sidi and his team in Mali.

“In the past, we have found that the stay-green trait can improve yields by up to 30 percent in drought conditions with very little downside during a good year, so we are hoping that these new lines will display similar characteristics,” says Andrew. “During the second phase we are also collaborating with ICRISAT in India and now expanding to five other African countries – Niger and Burkina Faso in West Africa; and Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia in East Africa. During 2013, we grew our stay-green enriched germplasm at two sites in all these countries. We also hosted scientists from Burkina Faso, Sudan and Kenya to undertake training in Queensland in February 2014.”

 

A sampling of some of stay-green sorghum partnerships in Africa. (1)  Asfaw Adugna assessing the genetic diversity of  sorghum panicles produced from the GCP collaboration at Melkassa, Ethiopia. (2)  Clarisse Barro-Kondombo (Burkina Faso) and Andrew Borrell (Australia) visiting a lysimeter facility in Hyderabad, India, as part of GCP training. (3) Clement Kamau (Kenya, left) and  Andrew Borrell (Australia, right) visiting the seed store at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) in Katumani, Kenya.

A sampling of some of stay-green sorghum partnerships in Africa. (1) Asfaw Adugna of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR)  assessing the genetic diversity of sorghum panicles produced from the GCP collaboration at Melkassa, Ethiopia. (2) Clarisse Barro-Kondombo (left, INERA – Institut de l’environnement et de recherches agricoles , Burkina Faso) and Andrew Borrell (right) visiting a lysimetre facility at ICRISAT’s headquarters in Hyderabad, India, as part of GCP training, in February 2013. (3) Clement Kamau (left, Kenya Agricultural Research Institute [KARI] ) and Andrew Borrell (right) visiting the seed store at KARI, Katumani, Kenya.

Andrew says that the collaboration with international researchers has given them a better understanding of how stay-green works in different genetic backgrounds and in different environments, and the applicability is broad. Using these trial data will help provide farmers with better information on growing sorghum, not just in Africa and Australia, but also all over the world.

“Both David and I consider it a privilege to work in this area with these international institutes. We love our science and we are really passionate to make a difference in the world with the science we are doing. GCP gives us the opportunity to expand on what we do in Australia and to have much more of a global impact.”

We’ll likely be hearing more from Andrew on the future of this work at GCP’s General Research Meeting (GRM) in October this year, so watch this space! Meantime, see slides below from GRM 2013 by the Sorghum Research Initiative team. We also invite you to visit the links below the slides for more information.

Links

Aug 292014
 
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“…I wanted to contribute in a similar way” – Eva Weltzien

 

Eva Weltzien

Eva Weltzien

Learning about the work of Nobel laureate, Norman Borlaug, in high school inspired Eva Weltzien to become a plant breeder so she too could contribute to improving the living conditions in the developing world. Today, Eva is a Principal Scientist in sorghum breeding and genetic resources at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Mali.

“Not only did Norman Borlaug revolutionise agriculture by breeding high-yielding wheat varieties, he then selflessly distributed these to the countries in the world that most needed them, saving hundreds of millions from starvation,” Eva recollects passionately, as she speaks about her scientific hero. “I remember being inspired when he won his Nobel Prize in 1970, mainly for the fact that agricultural research was actually being seen as contributing to world peace,” says Eva. “I knew then that I wanted to contribute in a similar way.”

I…wanted to take a break from… theory and instead gain an appreciation for plant breeding by working in the field”

The path to plant breeding, and pearls along the way
Eva was raised in her native Germany, as well as in Beirut, Lebanon, where she spent six years when her parents were stationed at the local university there. She credits her parents; both plant pathologists, for instilling in her a scientific mind-set from a tender age.

“They taught me to think outside the box and apply my knowledge and understanding to how I made sense of the world,” Eva recalls. “Being plant pathologists, they also encouraged me to observe the environment carefully and treat the earth with respect.”

Upon graduating from high school, Eva deferred going to university and instead worked as a seed technician for a private company in Germany. “I just wanted to take a break from studying theory and instead gain an appreciation for plant breeding by working in the field,” says Eva.

After one year with the company, Eva was ready to start university. During the decade that followed, she completed a Diploma in Agricultural Biology (University of Hohenheim, 1981) and a PhD in Agriculture (Munich University, 1986).

A year after completing her PhD, Eva accepted a postdoc position at Iowa State University, USA, where she met her future husband Fred Rattunde. After a few years, both Eva and Fred moved to India to work with ICRISAT. “I’ve been working for ICRISAT for almost 27 years now,” says Eva. “When I first started, I was working in pearl millet breeding.”

The key challenges have been improving the infrastructure of the national research facilities… as well as increasing the technical training for local researchers…this has slowly improved, particularly in the last four years with the funding and help through the GCP Sorghum Research Initiative.…we can see our work making an impact on people’s lives…”

Off to Africa, and bearing fruit
In 1998, ICRISAT offered Eva and Fred positions in Mali where they would take responsibility for the Institute’s sorghum-breeding programme in West Africa.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Evaluating Eva: In Dioila district, Mali, evaluating the panicles of a new sorghum line after harvest.

“It was a great challenge that we both wanted to explore,” says Eva. “The key challenges have been improving the infrastructure of the national research facilities to do the research as well as increasing the technical training for local agronomists and researchers. Over the past 15 years, this has slowly improved, particularly in the last four years, with the funding and facilitation through the GCP Sorghum Research Initiative. Now we can see our work making an impact on people’s lives in West Africa.” (see GCP’s work on infrastructure improvement)

…we are closer to delivering more robust sorghum varieties which will help farmers and feed the ever-growing population in West Africa.”

Improving drought tolerance in sorghum for Africa
The second phase of GCP’s Sorghum Research Initiative focuses on Mali, where sorghum-growing areas are large, and distributed over a wide range of rainfall regimes.

Eva and her team are currently collaborating with local researchers at L’Institut d’économie rurale (IER), Mali and France’s Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement (CIRAD) on a project to test a novel molecular-breeding approach – backcross nested association mapping (BCNAM). Eva says the approach has the potential to halve the time it takes to develop local sorghum varieties with improved yield and adaptability to poor soil fertility conditions.

“We don’t have these type of molecular-breeding resources available in Mali, so it’s really exciting to be a part of this project.”  Still, Eva and her colleagues continue to press forwards in this new frontier in plant science, making good advances in another parallel but closely related project that Eva leads in the GCP Comparative Genomics Research Initiative.

Eva continues, “We’ve had good results in terms of field trials, despite the political situation. Overall, we feel the experience is enhancing our capacity here in Mali, and that we are closer to delivering more robust sorghum varieties which will help farmers and feed the ever-growing population in West Africa.”

Slides (with more links after the slides)

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Aug 272014
 
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Leon Kochian

Leon Kochian

“By being involved with GCP, I’ve had more opportunities to travel to the developing world and witness the problems that local farmers in these countries are facing, as well as to meet with the local researchers who are trying to overcome these problems. It has made me appreciate that these  researchers also need the capacity to sustainably deal with agricultural problems once the project money starts to dry up.” – Leon Kochian (pictured), Professor, Cornell University, USA; and Director of Robert W Holley Center for Agriculture and Health, United States Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service. Also Product Delivery Leader for GCP’s Comparative Genomics Research Initiative.

Bright and early beginnings in biology
For as long as Leon Kochian can remember, he’d always wanted to be a biologist.

“I remember my second-grade teacher reading a story to us about the white cliffs of Dover and thinking to myself ‘They’re white because they’re covered in the prehistoric remains of dead protozoan’,”’ says Leon with a chuckle. “Yes, I was a weird kid and that sort of stuff [biology] has always interested me.”

Having completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Botany at the University of California, Berkeley, and a PhD in Plant Physiology at the University of California, Davis (both in USA), Leon joined the United States Department of Agriculture based at Cornell University.

For 30 years, he has combined lecturing and supervising duties at Cornell, with his quest to understand the genetic and physiological mechanisms that allow some cereals to tolerate acidic soils.

The GCP model has always attracted me, particularly its focus on making an impact on farmers’ lives… I had already been a successful researcher having published more than 250 papers, but I felt little of that had made any real impact on the world.”

Identifying genes and breeding tolerant crops for African farmers
Leon and Cornell University have been involved with GCP since the Programme’s inception in 2004, playing a lead role in GCP’s Comparative Genomics Research Initiative, of which Leon is the Product Delivery Coordinator. Cornell University is a member of the GCP Consortium, with Leon as Cornell’s representative in the GCP Consortium Committee.

“The GCP model has always attracted me, particularly its focus on making an impact on farmers’ lives,” says Leon, who has been a Principal Investigator for several Comparative Genomics Research Initiative projects. “I had already been a successful researcher having published more than 250 papers, but I felt little of that had made any real impact on the world.”

During the first phase of the project, Leon led a team comprising of researchers from Cornell, EMBRAPA in Brazil and Moi University in Kenya.

In the foreground, left to right, Leon, Jura and Sam in a maize field in Kenya.

Leon (left) with project colleagues, Jurandir Magalhães (EMBRAPA) and Sam Gudu (Moi University) in a maize field in Kenya in May 2010.

“We had been working for many years with both EMBRAPA and Moi University to identify the genes associated with aluminium tolerance in sorghum and maize and saw the potential to apply our research and expand it to explore other cereals such as rice and wheat,” explains Leon.

During GCP Phase I (2004–2008), the team successfully identified and cloned the major sorghum aluminium tolerance gene (AltSB). In Phase II (2009–2014), they are working towards breeding aluminium-tolerant sorghum lines for sub-Saharan Africa as well as applying what they have learnt to discover similar genes in rice and maize.

“Aluminium toxicity is a problem all over the world, but more so in Africa, as most farmers don’t have the money to manage it,” says Leon “These new aluminium-tolerant crops will improve African farmers’ yields, and, in turn, improve their quality of life.”

It’s like match.com for collaborative research and will hopefully foster greater collaboration between the two continents.”

Insights, connections and matchmaking
According to Leon, the funding from GCP has been very beneficial in making significant research progress on the projects he’s been involved with so far, and he is also quick to note the unexpected and very welcome non-monetary benefits from being involved with GCP.

“By being involved with GCP, I’ve had more opportunities to travel to the developing world and witness the problems that local farmers in these countries are facing, as well as to meet with the local researchers who are trying to overcome these problems. It has made me appreciate that these  researchers also need the capacity to sustainably deal with agricultural problems once the project money starts to dry up.”

Working with GCP, Leon has designed and run workshops to train African scientists on molecular breeding techniques and hosted several postgraduate researchers at Cornell. He is now working with GCP collaborators to develop a database that will help African scientists find potential collaborators in USA and the rest of the Americas. “It’s like match.com for collaborative research and will hopefully foster greater collaboration between the two continents,” says Leon.

Research is such a fun and social experience! … I still love getting into the lab and discovering new things. I’ve also learnt to enjoy being the old guy in the lab!”

Growing greyer, growing wiser
Leon says his passion for biology and research is steadfast and has not waned through the years. Although he doesn’t get to do much of the hands-on work these days, it still remains the most enjoyable part of his job. “Research is such a fun and social experience! I still love getting into the lab and discovering new things. I’ve also learnt to enjoy being the old guy in the lab! Just watching and helping young researchers grow and develop their skills is really rewarding. Each of the 13 PhD students I’ve supervised is like one of my kids and I still keep in touch with all of them, as I do with my own PhD supervisor, 30 years on!”

Having recently celebrated his 60th birthday, Leon has no plans on slowing down anytime soon. “I’m currently Director of the Robert W Holley Center for Agriculture and Health, lecturing undergraduate and postgraduate students, supervising two PhD students and sitting on several boards, all the while trying to find time to write papers and do some research. It’s hard work but I enjoy it.”

The three faces of Leon: (1) in the lab in Cornell; (2) in the field courtesy of USDA-ARS; and, (3) delivering opening remarks as Director of the Robert W Holley Center

The three faces of Leon: (1) in the lab in Cornell; (2) in the field, courtesy of USDA–ARS; and, (3) delivering opening remarks as Director of the Robert W Holley Center.

Leon tries to impart this philosophy to his students, believing scientists need to enjoy what they are doing, work hard at it, be flexible and creative, and, most importantly, not have ‘fear of failure’. “I don’t care how smart you are. If you’re not willing to work really hard and learn to improve yourself, then you’re not going to succeed.”

With regard to his GCP projects soon coming to a close when GCP sunsets in December 2014, Leon hopes he and team will succeed in meeting all their goals, but even if they don’t, he’s sure they’ll continue the research and try to discover more about aluminium tolerance. More power to them!

Leon’s slides, with links to more supplementary material after the slides

Links

Aug 152014
 
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Samuel Gudu

Samuel Gudu

Having funding to support PhD students and provide them with the resources they need to complete their research is very fulfilling and will go a long way to enhance the long-term success of our goal: to provide Kenyan farmers with cereal varieties that will improve their yields and make their livelihood more secure and sustainable.” – Samuel Gudu, Professor and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Planning & Development) at Moi University, and now Principal, Rongo University College: a Constituent College of Moi University, Kenya.

Growing up, and getting dirty
Learner, teacher and leader. Sam Gudu has been all these, but this doesn’t mean he doesn’t like to get his hands dirty.

Growing up in a small fishing village on the banks of Lake Victoria, in Western Kenya, Sam was always helping his parents to fish and garden, or his grandparents to muster cattle.

“I remember spending long hours before and after school either on the lake or in the field helping to catch, harvest and produce enough food to eat and support our family,” reminisces Sam.

He attributes this “hard and honest” work to why he still enjoys being in the field.

“Even though I now spend most of my days doing administration work, I’m always trying to get out into the field to get my hands dirty and see how our research is helping to make the lives of Kenyan farmers a lot more profitable and sustainable,” he says.

Sam in a maize field in Kenya.

Doing what he likes to do best: Sam in a maize field in Kenya.

I was… captivated by the study of genetics as it focused on what controlled life.”

Taking control: bonded to genetics, at home and away
Sam says his love for the land transferred to an interest and then passion in the classroom during high school. “I became very interested in Biology as I wanted to know how nature worked,” says Sam. “I was particularly captivated by the study of genetics as it focused on what controlled life.”

This interest grew during his undergraduate years at the University of Nairobi where he completed a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture and a Master’s of Science in Agriculture, focusing on genetics and plant breeding.

“I fondly remember a lecturer during my master’s degree studies who would continually give us challenges to test in the field and in the lab. If you had a viable idea he supported you to design an experiment to test your theory. I like to use the same method in teaching my students. I discuss quite a lot with my students and I encourage them to disagree if they use scientific process.”

Driven by an ever-growing passion and enthusiasm, Sam secured a scholarship to travel to Canada to undertake a PhD in Plant Genetics and Biotechnology at the University of Guelph.

[There has been an] influx of young Kenyans who are choosing degrees in science. The Kenyan Government has recently increased its funding for science and research…”

Nurturing the next breed of geneticists
After graduating from Guelph in 1993, Sam returned to Kenya to lecture at Moi University where he initiated and helped expand teaching and research in the disciplines of Genetic Engineering, Biotechnology and Molecular Biology.

In the past two decades, he has recruited young talented graduates in genetics and helped acquire advanced laboratory equipment that has enabled practical teaching and research in molecular biology.

“I wouldn’t be where I am now were it not for all the assistance I received from my teachers, lecturers and supervisors; notably my PhD supervisor – Prof Ken Kasha of the University of Guelph. So I’ve always tried my best to give the same assistance to my students. It’s been hard work but very rewarding, especially when you see your students graduate to become peers and colleagues.” (Meet some of Sam’s students)

Sam (2nd right), with some of his young charges: Thomas Matonyei (far left) , Edward Saina (2nd left) and Evans Ouma (far right)

Sam (2nd right), with some of his young charges: Thomas Matonyei (far left), Edward Saina (2nd left) and Evans Ouma (far right).

Sam is particularly buoyed by the influx of young Kenyans who are choosing degrees in science.

“The Kenyan Government has recently increased its funding for science and research to two percent of GDP,” explains Sam. “This has not only helped us compete in the world of research but has helped raise the profile of science as a career.”

Knowing which genes are responsible for aluminium tolerance will allow us to more precisely select for aluminium tolerance in our breeding programmes, reducing the time it takes for us to breed varieties that will have improved yields in acidic soils without the use of costly inputs such as lime or fertiliser.” (See the work that Sam does in this area with other partners outside Kenya)

So far we have produced 10 inbred lines that are outstanding for phosphorus efficiency, and two that were outstanding for aluminium toxicity. We are now testing unique verities developed for acid soils of Kenya.”

Slashing costs, increasing yields and resilience: genes to the rescue
Currently, Sam and his team of young researchers at Moi University are working with several other research facilities around the world (Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, EMBRAPA; Cornell University, USA; the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI); Japan’s International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences, JIRCAS; and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, KARI–Kitale) to develop high-yielding maize varieties adapted to acid soils in East Africa, using molecular and conventional breeding approaches.

Can you spot Sam? It’s a dual life. Here, he sheds his field clothes in this 2011 suit-and-tie moment with Moi University and other colleagues involved in the projects he leads. Left to right: P Kisinyo, J Agalo, V Mugalavai, B Were, D Ligeyo, S Gudu, R Okalebo and A Onkware.

Acid soils cover almost 13 per cent of arable land in Kenya, and most of the maize-growing areas in Kenya. In most of these areas, maize yields are reduced by almost 60 per cent. Aluminium toxicity is partly responsible for the low and declining yields.

“We found that most local maize varieties and landraces grown in acid soils are sensitive to aluminium toxicity. The aluminium reduces root growth and as such the plant cannot efficiently tap into native soil phosphorus, or even added phosphorus fertiliser. However, there are some varieties of maize that are suited to the conditions even if you don’t use lime to improve the soil’s pH. So far we have produced 10 inbred lines that are outstanding for phosphorus efficiency, and two that were outstanding for aluminium toxicity. We are now testing unique varieties developed for acid soils of Kenya.”

Sam (left)   a group of farmers and alking to farmers and researchers at Sega, Western Kenya, in June 2009

Sam (left) addressing a mixed group of farmers and researchers at Sega, Western Kenya, in June 2009.

In a related project, Sam is working with the same partners to understand the molecular and genetic basis for aluminium tolerance.

“Knowing which genes are responsible for aluminium tolerance will allow us to more precisely select for aluminium tolerance in our breeding programmes, reducing the time it takes for us to breed varieties that will have improved yields in acidic soils without the use of costly inputs such as lime or fertiliser.”

 … my greatest achievements thus far have been those which have benefited farmers and my students.”

 Summing up success
For Sam, the greatest two successes in his career have not been personal.

“If I’m honest, I have to say my greatest achievements thus far have been those which have benefited farmers and my students. Having funding to support PhD students and provide them with the resources they need to complete their research is very fulfilling and will go a long way to enhance the long-term success of our goal: to provide Kenyan farmers with cereal varieties that will improve their yields and make their livelihoods more secure and sustainable.”

With a dozen aluminium-tolerant and phosphorus-efficient breeding lines under their belt already, and two lines submitted for National Variety Trials (a pre-requisite step to registration and release to farmers), Sam and his team seem well on their way towards their goal, and we wish them well in their quest and labour.

Links:

 

Jul 242014
 
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Read how this cocktail blends in a comparative genomics crucible, where both family genes and crop genes come into play in Brazil. Nothing whatsoever to do with the World Cup. It’s all about a passionate love affair with plant science – specifically a quest for aluminium-resilient maize – spanning a decade-and-a-half, and still counting…

Claudia

Claudia Guimarães

 

“I love the whole process of science; from identifying a problem, developing a method, conducting the experiments, analysing the data and evaluating the findings.” – Claudia Guimarães (pictured), Researcher at EMBRAPA Milho e Sorgo, Sete Lagoas, Brazil

I always enjoyed looking after the cattle and horses as well as planting and harvesting different crops.”

Forged on family farm, federal institute and foreign land
Claudia Guimarães is a plant molecular geneticist, with a pronounced passion for science. At the Federal University of Viçosa, Claudia studied agronomy because it provided a wide range of possibilities career-wise. She also believes her family’s farming background too had a part to play in her study and career choice. “My father has a farm in a small village 200 km north of Sete Lagoas. My whole family used to go there during our school holidays. I always enjoyed looking after the cattle and horses as well as planting and harvesting different crops.”

During her bachelor’s degrees, Claudia was increasingly drawn to plant genetics. She decided to pursue this field further and completed a Master’s degree in Genetics and Breeding, focusing on maize. She then completed a PhD in Comparative Genomics where she split her time between California and Brazil. “For my PhD, I got a scholarship from the Brazilian Council for Scientific and Technological Development which included international training in San Diego, California. During my PhD, I focused on comparative genomics for sugarcane, maize and sorghum, which involved genetic mapping and markers,” Claudia reveals.

Returning to Brazil after two years in California, Claudia joined the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, commonly referred to as EMBRAPA (Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária), where she has worked for the last 15 years, since 1999.

bCIMMYTmaizeField_w

Preparing to put her shoulder to the wheel, literally? Claudia in a maize field at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Tlaltizapan, Mexico, in January 2010.

dNutrientSolutionEmbrapa_w

Maize plantlets cultivated in nutrient solution, the methodology Claudia and her team use to evaluate aluminium tolerance.

Our next challenge is to develop specific markers for a wider marker-assisted selection of aluminium tolerance in maize.”

Long-term allies in aluminium tolerance
EMBRAPA first became involved with GCP through one of its foundation programmes headed by Leon Kochian and his former PhD student Jurandir Magalhães. “Jura has been a really close friend for a long time,” explains Claudia. “We went to university together and have ended up working together here at EMBRAPA. I was involved in Jura’s project, which sought to clone a sorghum aluminium-tolerance gene.”

This gene is called SbMATE. Claudia continues, “EMBRAPA had a long-term aluminium-tolerance programme on maize and sorghum, within which there was a QTL mapping project for aluminium tolerance in maize, in which we started to look for a similar gene as the sorghum team.”

[Editor’s note: QTL stands for quantitative trait locus or loci – gene loci where allelic variation is associated with variation in a quantitative trait. An allele is a variant (different version) of a gene, that leads to variation in a trait, eg different colour for hair and eyes in human beings.]

Working with Leon Kochian at Cornell University, USA, Claudia and her team were able to find an important aluminium-tolerance gene homologue (loosely meaning a relative or counterpart) to the sorghum SbMATE, which they named ZmMATE. This gene is responsible for a major aluminium tolerance QTL that improves yield in acidic soil in maize breeding lines and hybrids. (see why scientists work jointly on closely related cereals)

“Identifying and then validating ZmMATE as the primary aluminium tolerance QTL in maize was a great project,” says Claudia. “Our next challenge is to develop specific markers for a wider marker-assisted selection of aluminium tolerance in maize.”

1: Rhyzobox containing two layers of Cerrado soil – a corrected top-soil and lower soils with 15 percent of aluminium saturation. We can see that near-isogenic lines (NILs) introgressed with the Al tolerance QTL (qALT6) that encompasses ZmMATE1 show deeper roots and longer secondary roots in acid soils, whereas the roots of L53 are mainly confined in the corrected top soil.  2: Maize ears, representing the improved yield stability in acid soils of a NIL per se and crossed with L3. NILs have the genetic background of L53 introgressed with qALT6, the major aluminium-tolerance QTL.

March 2014. Photo 1: Rhyzobox containing two layers of Cerrado soil – a corrected top-soil and lower soils with 15 percent aluminium saturation. We can see that near-isogenic lines (NILs) introgressed with the aluminium-tolerance QTL (qALT6) that encompasses ZmMATE1 show deeper roots and longer secondary roots in acidic soils, whereas the roots of L53 are mainly confined in the corrected top soil. Photo 2: Maize ears, representing the improved yield stability in acidic soils of a NIL per se and crossed with L3. NILs have the genetic background of L53 introgressed with qALT6, the major aluminium-tolerance QTL.

 

 …the students have really become my arms…  helping me a lot with the experiments…

Giving and receiving: students step in, partners in print
Supervising students has become a larger part of Claudia’s life since becoming a member of the Genetics Graduate Programme at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, in 2004. Because of this, she credits the students for helping her with her research. “I don’t have as much time as I used to in the lab, so the students have really become my arms in that area, helping me a lot with the experiments,” Claudia reveals. “This isn’t to say that they don’t have to think about what they are doing. I encourage them to always be thinking about why they are doing an experiment and what the result means. At the end of the day, they need to know more about what they are doing than I do, so they can identify indiscretions and successes.”

Claudia says she is always preaching three simple instructions to her students – work hard, always continue to learn and like what you do. “The last instruction is particularly important because as a scientist you need to dedicate a lot of time to what you do, so it helps if you like it. If you don’t like it then it becomes frustrating and no fun at all. I don’t think of my work as a job, rather as a passion. I just enjoy it so much!”

Claudia’s passion is not just a matter of the heart but also of the head, expressing itself in print. Her latest publication reflects the most current results on maize aluminium tolerance, highlighting GCP support, partnerships within and beyond EMBRAPA embracing Cornell University and the Agricultural Research Services of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA–ARS) , as well as the strong presence of students. Check it out

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Jul 232014
 
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DNA spiral

DNA spiral

Crop researchers including plant breeders across five continents are collaborating on several GCP projects to develop local varieties of sorghum, maize and rice, which can withstand phosphorus deficiency and aluminium toxicity – two of the most widespread constraints leading to poor crop productivity in acidic soils. These soils account for nearly half the world’s arable soils, with the problem particularly pronounced in the tropics, where few smallholder farmers can afford the costly farm inputs to mitigate the problems. Fortunately, science has a solution, working with nature and the plants’ own defences, and capitalising on cereal ‘family history’ from 65 million years ago. Read on in this riveting story related by scientists, that will carry you from USA to Africa and Asia with a critical stopover in Brazil and back again, so ….

… welcome to Brazil, where there is more going than the 2014 football World Cup! Turning from sports to matters cerebral and science, drive six hours northwest from Rio de Janeiro and you’ll arrive in Sete Lagoas, nerve centre of the EMBRAPA Maize and Sorghum Research Centre. EMBRAPA stands for Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária  ‒  in  English, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation.

Jura_w

Jurandir Magalhães

Jurandir Magalhães (pictured), or Jura as he prefers to be called, is a cereal molecular geneticist and principal scientist who’s been at EMBRAPA since 2002.

“EMBRAPA develops projects and research to produce, adapt and diffuse knowledge and technologies in maize and sorghum production by the efficient and rational use of natural resources,” Jura explains.

Such business is also GCP’s bread and butter. So when in 2004, Jura and his former PhD supervisor at Cornell University, Leon Kochian, submitted their first GCP project proposal to clone a major aluminium tolerance gene in sorghum they had been searching for, GCP approved the proposal.

“We were already in the process of cloning the AltSB gene,” remembers Jura, “So when this opportunity came along from GCP, we thought it would provide us with the appropriate conditions to carry this out and complete the work.”

Cloning the AltSB gene would prove to be one of the first steps in GCP’s foundation sorghum and maize projects, both of which seek to provide farmers in the developing world with crops that will not only survive but thrive in the acidic soils that make up more than half of the world’s arable soils (see map below).

More than half of world’s potentially arable soils are highly acidic.

More than half of world’s potentially arable soils are highly acidic.

… identifying the AltSB gene was a significant achievement which brought the project closer to their final objective, which is to breed aluminium-tolerant crops that will improve yields in harsh environments, in turn improving the quality of life for farmers.”

A star is born: identifying and cloning AltSB
For 30 years, Leon Kochian (pictured below) has combined lecturing and supervising duties at Cornell University and the United States Department of Agriculture, with his quest to understand the genetic and physiological mechanisms behind the ability of some cereals to withstand acidic soils. Leon is also the Product Delivery Coordinator for GCP’s Comparative Genomics Research Initiative.

Leon Kochian

Leon Kochian

Aluminium toxicity is associated with acidic soils and is the primary limitation on crop production for more than 30 percent of farmland in Southeast Asia and Latin America, and approximately 20 percent in East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and North America. Aluminium ions damage roots and impair their growth and function. This results in reduced nutrient and water uptake, which in turn depresses yield.

“These effects can be limited by applying lime to increase the soil’s pH. However, this isn’t a viable option for farmers in developing countries,” says Leon, who was the Principal Investigator for the premier AltSB project and is currently involved in several off-shoot projects.

Working on the understanding that grasses like barley and wheat use membrane transporters to insulate themselves against subsoil aluminium, Leon and Jura searched for a similar transporter in sorghum varieties that were known to tolerate aluminium.

“In wheat, when aluminium levels are high, these membrane transporters prompt organic acid release from the tip of the root,” explains Leon. “The organic acid binds with the aluminium ion, preventing it from entering the root. We found that in certain sorghum varieties, AltSB is the gene that encodes a specialised organic acid transport protein – SbMATE*  –  which mediates the release of citric acid. From cloning the gene, we found it is highly expressed in aluminium-tolerant sorghum varieties. We also found that the expression increases the longer the plant is exposed to high levels of aluminium.”

[*Editor’s note: different from the gene with the same name, hence not in italics]

Leon says identifying the AltSB gene and then cloning it was a significant achievement and it brought the project closer to their final objective, which he says is “to breed aluminium-tolerant crops that will improve yields in harsh environments, in turn improving the quality of life for farmers.”

This research was long and intensive, but it set a firm foundation for the work in GCP Phase II, which seeks to use what we have learnt in the laboratory and apply it to breed crops that are tolerant to biotic or abiotic stress such as aluminium toxicity and phosphorus deficiency.”

Comparative genomics: finding similar genes in different crops
Wheat, maize, sorghum and rice are all part of the Poaceae (grasses) family, evolving from a common grass ancestor 65 million years ago. Over this time they have become very different from each other. However, at a genetic level they still have a lot in common.

Over the last 20 years, genetic researchers all over the world have been mapping these cereals’ genomes. These maps are now being used by geneticists and plant breeders to identify similarities and differences between the genes of different cereal species. This process is termed comparative genomics and is a fundamental research theme for GCP research as part of its second phase.

rajeev-varshney_1332450938

Rajeev Varshney

“The objective during GCP Phase I was to study the genomes of important crops and identify genes conferring resistance or tolerance to biotic or abiotic stresses,” says Rajeev Varshney (pictured), Director, Center of Excellence in Genomics and Principal Scientist in applied genomics at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). “This research was long and intensive, but it set a firm foundation for the work in GCP Phase II, which seeks to use what we have learnt in the laboratory and apply it to breed crops that are tolerant to biotic or abiotic stress such as aluminium toxicity and phosphorus deficiency.”

Until August 2013, Rajeev had oversight on GCP’s comparative genomics research projects on aluminium tolerance and phosphorus deficiency is sorghum, maize and rice, as part of his GCP role as Leader of the Comparative and Applied Genomics Theme.

“Phosphorus deficiency and aluminium toxicity are soil problems that typically coincide in acidic soils,” says Rajeev. “They are two of the most critical constraints responsible for low crop productivity on acid soils worldwide. These projects are combining the aluminium tolerance work done by EMBRAPA and Cornell University with the phosphorus efficiency work done by IRRI [International Rice Research Institute] and JIRCAS [Japan International Research Centre for Agricultural Sciences] to first identify and validate similar aluminium-tolerance and phosphorus-efficient genes in sorghum, maize and rice, and then, secondly, breed crops with these combined improvements.”

These collaborations are really exciting! They make it possible to answer questions that we could not answer ourselves, or that we would have overlooked, were it not for the partnerships.”

When AltSB met Pup1
Having spent more than a decade identifying and cloning AltSB, Jura and Leon have recently turned their attention to identifying and cloning the genes responsible for phosphorus efficiency in sorghum. Luckily, they weren’t starting from scratch this time, as another GCP project on the other side of the world was well on the way to identifying a phosphorus-efficiency gene in rice.

Led by Matthias Wissuwa at JIRCAS and Sigrid Heuer at IRRI, the Asian base GCP project had identified a gene locus, which encoded a particular protein kinase that allowed varieties with this gene to grow successfully in low-phosphorous conditions. They termed the region of the rice genome where this gene resides as ‘phosphorus uptake 1’ or Pup1 as it is commonly referred to in short.

“In phosphorus-poor soils, this protein kinase instructs the plant to grow larger, longer roots, which are able to forage through more soil to absorb and store more nutrients,” explains Sigrid. “By having a larger root surface area, plants can explore a greater area in the soil and find more phosphorus than usual. It’s like having a larger sponge to absorb more water!”

Read more about the mechanics of Pup-1 and the evolution of the project.

Jura and Leon are working on the same theory as IRRI and JIRCAS, that larger and longer roots enhance phosphorus efficiency. They are identifying sorghum with these traits, using comparative genomics to identify a locus similar to Pup1 in these low-phosphorus-tolerant varieties, and then verify whether the genes at this locus are responsible for the trait.

“So far, the results are promising and we have evidence that Pup1 homologues may underlie a major QTL for phosphorous uptake in sorghum,” says Jura who is leading the project to identify and validate Pup1 and other phosphorus-efficiency QTLs in sorghum.  QTL stands for ‘quantitative trait locus’ which refers to stretches of DNA containing ‒ or linked to ‒ the genes responsible for a quantitative trait  “What we have to do now is to see if this carries over in the field, leading to enhanced phosphorus uptake and grain yield in low-phosphorus soils,” he adds.

Jura and Leon are also returning the favour to IRRI and JIRCAS and are collaborating with both institutes to identify and clone in rice similar genes to the AltSB gene in sorghum.

“These collaborations are really exciting! They make it possible to answer questions that we could not answer ourselves, or that we would have overlooked, were it not for the partnerships,” says Sigrid.

To make a difference in rural development, to truly contribute to improved food security through crop improvement and incomes for poor farmers, we knew that capacity development had to be a continuing cornerstone in our strategy.”

Building capacity in Africa
In GCP Phase II which is more application oriented, projects must have objectives that deliver products and build capacity in developing-world breeding programmes.

Jean-Marcel Ribaut

Jean-Marcel Ribaut

“The thought behind the latter requirement is that GCP is not going to be around after 2014 so we need to facilitate these country breeding programmes to take ownership of the science and products so they can continue it locally,” says Jean-Marcel Ribaut, GCP Director (pictured). “To make a difference in rural development, to truly contribute to improved food security through crop improvement and incomes for poor farmers, we knew that capacity development had to be a continuing cornerstone in our strategy.”

Back to Brazil: Jura says this requirement is not uncommon for EMBRAPA projects as the Brazilian government seeks to become a world leader in science and agriculture. “Before GCP started, we had been working with African partners for five to six years through the McKnight Project. It was great when GCP came along as we were able to continue these collaborations.”

Samuel Gudu

Samuel Gudu

One collaboration Jura was most pleased to continue was with his colleague and friend, Sam Gudu (pictured), from Moi University, Kenya. Sam has been collaborating with Jura and Leon on several GCP projects and is the only African Principal Investigator in the Comparative Genomics Research Initiative.

“Our relationship with EMBRAPA and Cornell University has been very fruitful,” says Sam. “We wouldn’t have been able to do as much as we have done without these collaborations or without our other international collaborators at IRRI, JIRCAS, ICRISAT or Niger’s National Institute of Agricultural Research [INRAN].”

Sam is currently working on several projects with these partners looking at validating the genes underlying major aluminium-tolerance and phosphorus-efficiency traits in local sorghum and maize varieties in Kenya, as well as establishing a molecular breeding programme.

“The molecular-marker work has been very interesting. We have selected the best phosphorus-efficient lines from Brazil and Kenya, and have crossed them with local varieties to produce several really good hybrids which we are currently field-testing in Kenya,” explains Sam. “Learning and using these new breeding techniques will enable us to select for and breed new varieties faster.”

Sam is also grateful to both EMBRAPA and Cornell University for hosting several PhD students as part of the project. “This has been a significant outcome as these PhD students are returning to Kenya with a far greater understanding of molecular breeding which they are sharing with us to advance our national breeding programme.”

We’ve used the knowledge that Jura’s and Leon’s AltSB projects have produced to discover and validate similar genes in maize…We identified Kenyan lines carrying the superior allele of ZmMATE …This work will also improve our understanding of what other mechanisms may be working in the Brazilian lines too.” 

‘Everyone’ benefits! Applying the AltSB gene to maize
Claudia Guimarães (pictured) is a maize geneticist at EMBRAPA. But unlike Jura, her interest lies in maize.

Claudia

Claudia Guimarães

Working on the same comparative genomics principle used to identify Pup1 in sorghum, Claudia has been leading a GCP project replicating the sorghum aluminium tolerance work in maize.

“We’ve used the knowledge that Jura’s and Leon’s AltSBprojects have produced to discover and validate similar genes in maize,” explains Claudia. “From our mapping work we identified ZmMATE as the gene underlying a major aluminium tolerance QTL in maize. It has a similar sequence as the gene found in sorghum and it encodes a similar protein membrane transporter that is responsible for citrate extradition.”

A maize field at EMBRAPA. Maize on the left is aluminum-tolerant while the maize on the right is not.

A maize field at EMBRAPA. Maize on the left is aluminium-tolerant while the maize on the right is not.

Using molecular markers, Claudia and her team of researchers from EMBRAPA, Cornell University and Moi University have developed near-isogenic lines from Brazilian and Kenyan maize varieties that show aluminium tolerance, with ZmMATE present. From preliminary field tests, the Brazilian lines have had improved yields in acidic soils.

“We identified a few Kenyan lines carrying the superior allele of ZmMATE that can be used as donors to develop maize varieties with improved aluminium tolerance,” says Claudia.  “This work will also improve our understanding of what other mechanisms may be working in the Brazilian lines too.”

What has pleased Jura and other Principal Investigators the most is the leadership that African partners have taken in GCP projects.

Cherry on the cereal cake
With GCP coming to an end in December 2014, Jura is hopeful that his and other offshoot projects dealing with aluminium tolerance and phosphorus efficiency will deliver on what they set out to do.

“For me, the cherry on the cake for the aluminium-tolerance projects would be if we show that AltSB improves tolerance in acidic soils in Africa. If everything goes well, I think this will be possible as we have already developed molecular markers for AltSB.”

What has pleased Jura and other Principal Investigators the most is the leadership that African partners have taken in GCP projects.

“This has been a credit to them and all those involved to help build their capacity and encourage them to take the lead. I feel this will help sustain the projects into the future and one day help these developing countries produce varieties of sorghum and maize for their farmers that are able to yield just as well in acidic soils as they do in non-acidic soils.”

In the foreground, left to right, Leon, Jura and Sam in a maize field in Kenya.

In the foreground, left to right, Leon, Jura and Sam in a maize field at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), Kitale, in May 2010. They are examining crosses between Kenyan and Brazilian maize germplasm.

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Jun 242014
 
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Triumphs and tragedies, pitfalls and potential of the ‘camel crop’Cassava leaf. Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

We travel through space and time, with a pair of researchers who have a pronounced passion for a plant brought to Africa by seafaring Portuguese traders in the 16th century. Fastforwarding to today, half a millennium later, the plant is widespread and deep inland, and is the staple food for Africa’s most populous nation – Nigeria.

Meet cassava, the survivor. After rice and maize, cassava is the third-largest source of carbohydrate in the tropics. Surviving, nay thriving, in poor soils and shaking off the vagaries of weather – including an exceptionally high threshold for drought – little wonder that cassava, the ‘camel’ of crops is naturally the main staple in Nigeria. And with that, it has propelled Nigeria to the very top of the cassava totem pole as the world’s leading cassava producer, and consumer: most Nigerians eat cassava in one form or another practically every day.

Great, huh? But there’s also a darker side to cassava, as we will soon find out from our two cassava experts. For starters, the undisputed global cassava giant, Nigeria, produces just enough to feed herself. Even if there were a surplus for the external demand, farming families, which make up 70 percent of the Nigerian population, have limited access to these lucrative external markets. Secondly, cassava mosaic disease (CMD) and cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) are deadly in Africa. Plus, cassava is a late bloomer (up to two years growth cycle, typically one year), so breeding and testing improved varieties takes time. Finally, cassava is most definitely not à la mode at all in modern crop breeding: the crop is an unfashionably late entrant into the world of molecular breeding, owing to its complex genetics which denied cassava the molecular tools that open the door to this glamour world of ‘crop supermodels’.

Emmanuel Okogbenin (left) and Chiedozie Egesi (right) in  a cassava field.

Emmanuel Okogbenin (left) and Chiedozie Egesi (right) in a cassava field.

But all is not doom and gloom, which inexorably dissolve in the face of dogged determination. All the above notwithstanding, cassava’s green revolution seems to be decidedly on the way in Nigeria, ably led by born-and-bred sons of the soil: Chiedozie Egesi and Emmanuel Okogbenin (pictured right) are plant breeders and geneticists at the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI). With 36 years’ collective cassava research experience between them, the two men are passionate about getting the best out of Nigeria’s main staple crop, and getting their hands into the sod while about it: “I’m a plant breeder,” says Chiedozie, with pride. “I don’t just work in a laboratory. I am also in the field to experience the realities.”

Hitting two birds with one stone…two stones are even better!
As Principal Investigators (PIs) leading three different projects in the GCP-funded Cassava Research Initiative, Chiedozie and Emmanuel, together with other colleagues from across Africa, form a formidable team. They also share a vision to enable farmers increase cassava production for cash, beyond subsistence. This means ensuring farmers have new varieties of cassava that guarantee high starch-rich yields in the face of evolving diseases and capricious weather.

Chiedozie is one of cassava’s biggest fans. His affection for, and connection to, cassava is almost personal and definitely paternal. He is determined to deploy the best plant-breeding techniques to not only enhance cassava’s commercial value, but to also protect the crop against future disease outbreaks, including ‘defensive‘ breading. But more on that later…

Emmanuel is equally committed to the cassava cause. As part of his brief, Emmanuel liaises with the Nigerian government, to develop for – and promote to – farmers high-starch cassava varieties. This ensures a carefully crafted multi-pronged strategy to revolutionise cassava: NRCRI develops and releases improved varieties, buttressed by financial incentives and marketing opportunities that encourage farmers to grow and sell more cassava, which spurs production, thereby simultaneously boosting food security while also improving livelihoods.

erect cass1_LS 4 web

Standing tall. Disease resistance and high starch and yield aside, farmers also prefer an upright architecture, which not only significantly increases the number of plants per unit, but also favours intercropping, a perennial favourite   for cassava farmers.

Cross-continental crosses and cousins, magic for making time, and clocking a first for cassava

No one has been able to manufacture time yet, so how can breeders get around cassava’s notoriously long breeding cycle? MAS (marker-assisted selection) is crop breeding’s magic key for making time. And just as humans can benefit from healthy donor organ replacement, so too does cassava, with cross-continental cousins donating genes to rescue the cousin in need. Latin American cassava is nutrient-rich, while African cassava is hardier, being more resilient to pests, disease and harsh environments.

Thanks to marker-assisted breeding, CMD resistance from African cassava can now be rapidly ‘injected’ much faster into Latin American cassava for release in Africa. Consequently, in just a three-year span (2010–2012), Chiedozie, Emmanuel, Martin Fregene of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (USA) and the NRCRI team, released two new cassava varieties from Latin American genetic backgrounds (CR41-10 and CR36-5). These varieties, developed with GCP funding, are the first molecular-bred cassava ever to be released, meaning they are a momentous milestone in cassava’s belated but steady march towards its own green revolution.

Marker-assisted selection is much cheaper, and more focused.” 

On the cusp of a collaborative cassava revolution: on your marks…
With GCP funding, Chiedozie and Emmanuel have been able to use the latest molecular-breeding techniques to speed up CMD resistance. Using marker-assisted selection (MAS) which is much more efficient, the scientists identified plants combining CMD resistance with desirable genetic traits.

“MAS for CMD resistance from Latin American germplasm is much cheaper, and more focused,” explains Emmanuel. “There is no longer any need to ship in tonnes of plant material to Africa. We can narrow down our search at an early stage by selecting only material that displays markers for the genetic traits we’re looking for.” Using markers, combining traits (known as ‘gene pyramiding’) for CMD resistance is faster and more efficient, as it is difficult to distinguish phenotypes with multiple resistance in the field by just observing with the naked eye. This is what makes marker-assisted breeding so effective and desirable in Africa.

GCP’s mode of doing business coupled with its community spirit has spurred the NRCRI scientists to cast their eyes further out to the wider horizon beyond their own borders.

By collaborating with research centres in other parts of the world, Emmanuel and Chiedozie have made remarkable strides in cassava breeding. According to Emmanuel, “GCP helped us make links with advanced laboratories and service providers like LGC Genomics. The outsourcing of genotyping activities for molecular breeding initiatives is very significant, as it enables us to carry out analyses not otherwise possible.”

We can’t afford to sit idle until it comes – we need to be armed and on the ready.”

‘Defensive’ breeding: partnerships to pre-empt catastrophe and combat disease
Closer home in Africa, as PI of the corollary African breeders community of practice (CoP) project, Emmanuel co-organises regular workshops with plant breeders from a dozen other countries (Côte d’Ivoire, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya,  Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda and South Sudan). These events are an opportunity to share knowledge on molecular breeding and compare notes.

Of the diseases that afflict cassava, CBSD is the most devastating. Mercifully, in Nigeria, the disease is non-existent, but Chiedozie is emphatic that this is by no means cause for complacency. “If CBSD gets to Nigeria, it would be a monumental catastrophe!” he cautions. “We can’t afford to sit idle until it comes – we need to be armed and on the ready.”

Putting words to action, though this work on CBSD resistance is still in its early stages, more than 1,000 cassava genotypes (different genetic combinations) have already have been screened in the course of just one year. Chiedozie hopes that the team will be able to identify key genetic markers, and validate these in field trials in Tanzania, where CBSD is widespread. This East African stopover, Chiedozie emphasises, is a crucial checkpoint in the West African process. So the cassava CoP not only provides moral but also material support.

And Africa is not the limit. GCP-funded work on CMD resistance is more advanced than the CBSD work, though the real breakthrough in CMD only happened recently, on the international arena within which the African breeders now operate. According to Chiedozie, two entire decades of screening cassava genotypes from Latin America yielded no resistance to CMD. The reason for this is that although it is widespread in Africa, CMD is non-existent in Latin America.

Through international collaborative efforts, cassava scientists, led by Martin Fregene (now based in USA), screened plants from Nigeria and discovered markers for the CMD2 gene, indicating resistance to CMD. Once they had found these markers, the scientists were off and away! By taking the best of the Latin American material and crossing it with Nigerian genotypes that have CMD resistance, promising lines were developed from which the Nigerian team produced two new varieties. These varieties, CR41-10 and CR36-5, have already been released to farmers, and that is not all. More varieties bred using these two as parents are in the pipeline.

“GCP funding has given us the opportunity to show that a national organisation can do the job and deliver.” 

 

Delivery attracts
The success of the CGP-funded cassava research in Nigeria lies in its in-country leadership. Chiedozie, Emmanuel and Martin are native Nigerian scientists and as such are – in many ways – best placed to drive a research collaboration to benefit the country’s farmers and boost food security. “GCP funding has given us the opportunity to show that a national organisation can do the job and deliver,” says Chiedozie.

This proven expertise has helped NRCRI forge other partnerships and attract more financial support, for example from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for a project on genomic selection. GCP support has also bolstered communications with the Nigerian government, which has launched financial instruments, such as a wheat tariff,* to boost cassava production and use.

[Editors note: * wheat tariff: The Nigerian government is trying to reduce wheat import bills and also boost cassava commercialisation by promoting 20 percent wheat substitution in bread-making. Tariffs are being imposed on wheat to dissuade heavy imports and encourage utilisation of high-quality cassava flour for bread.]

“The government feels that to quickly change the fortunes of farmers, cassava is the way to go,” explains Emmanuel. He clarifies, “The tariff from wheat is expected to be ploughed back to support agricultural development – especially the cassava sector – as the government seeks to increase cassava production to support flour mills. Cassava offers a huge opportunity to transform the agricultural economy and stimulate rural development, including rapid creation of employment for youth.”

The Nigerian government is right in step aiding cassava’s march towards the crop’s own green revolution, as is evident in the the Minister of Agriculture’s tweet earlier this year, and in his video interview below. See also related media story, ‘Long wait for cassava bread’.

Clearly, the ‘camel’ crop – once considered an ‘orphan’ in research  –  has travelled as far in science as in geography, and it is a precious asset to deploy for food production in a climate-change-prone world. As Emmanuel observes, cassava’s future can only be brighter!

Slides by Chiedozie and Emmanuel

 

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