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Apr 042014
 
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Phil Roberts

Phil Roberts

Like its legume relatives, cowpeas belong to a cluster of crops that are still referred to in some spheres of the crop-breeding world as ‘orphan crops’. This, because they have largely been bypassed by the unprecedented advances that have propelled ‘bigger’ crops into the world of molecular breeding, endowed as they are with the genomic resources necessary. But as we shall hear from Phil Roberts (pictured), of the University of California–Riverside, USA, and also the cowpea research leader for the Tropical Legumes I Project (TLI), despite the prefix in the  name, this ‘little kid’ in the ‘breeding block’ called cowpeas is uncowed and unbowed, confidently striding into the world of modern crop breeding, right alongside the ‘big boys’! What more on this new kid on the block of modern molecular breeding? Phil’s at hand to fill us in…

Vigna the VIP that shrinks with the violets
But is no shrinking violet, by any means, as we shall see. Also known  as niébé in francophone Africa, and in USA as black-eyed peas (no relation to the musical group, however, hence no capitals!), this drought-tolerant ancient crop (Vigna unguiculata [L] Walp) originated in West Africa. It is highly efficient in fixing nitrogen in the unforgiving and dry sandy soils of the drier tropics. And that is not all. This modest VIP is not addicted to the limelight and is in fact outright lowly and ultra-social: like their fetching African counterpart in the flower family, the African violet, cowpeas will contentedly thrive under the canopy of others, blooming in the shade and growing alongside various cereal and root crops, without going suicidal for lack of limelight and being in the crowd. With such an easy-going personality, added to their adaptability, cowpeas have sprinted ahead to become the most important grain legume in sub-Saharan Africa for both subsistence and cash. But – as always – there are two sides to every story, and sadly, not all about cowpeas is stellar…

Improved varieties are urgently needed to narrow the gap between actual and potential yields… modern breeding techniques… can play a vital role”

A cowpea experimental plot at IITA.

A cowpea experimental plot at IITA.

What could be, and what molecular breeding has to do with it
Yields are low, only reaching a mere 10 to 30 percent of their potential, primarily because of insect- and disease-attack, sometimes further compounded by chronic drought in the desiccated drylands cowpeas generally call home. “Improved varieties are urgently needed to narrow the gap between actual and potential yields,” says Phil. The cowpea project he leads in TLI is implemented through GCP’s Legume Research Initiative. Phil adds, “Such varieties are particularly valuable on small farms, where costly agricultural inputs are not an option. Modern breeding techniques, resulting from the genomics revolution, can play a vital role in improving cowpea materials.”

He and his research team are therefore developing genomic resources that country-based breeding programmes can use. Target-country partners are Institut de l’Environnement et de Recherches Agricoles (INERA) in Burkina Faso; Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique; and Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles (ISRA) in Senegal. Other partners are the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) headquartered in Nigeria and USA’s Feed the Future Innovation Labs for Collaborative Research on Grain Legumes and for Climate Resilient Cowpeas.

It’s a lot easier and quicker, and certainly less hit-or-miss than traditional methods!… By eliminating some phenotyping steps and identifying plants carrying positive-trait alleles for use in crossing, they will also shorten the time needed to breed better-adapted cowpea varieties preferred by farmers and markets.”

Cowpea seller at Bodija Market, Ibadan, Nigeria.

Cowpea seller at Bodija Market, Ibadan, Nigeria.

 

On target, and multiplying the score
[First, a rapid lesson on plant-genetics jargon so we can continue our story uninterrupted: 'QTLs' stands for quantitative trait loci, a technical term in quantitative genetics to describe the locations where genetic variation is associated with variation in a quantitative trait. QTL analysis estimates how many genes control a particular trait. 'Allele' means an alternative form of a the same gene. Continuing with the story…]

The curved shape means that these cowpea pods are mature and ready for harvesting.

Culinary curves and curls: the curved shape means that these cowpea pods are mature and ripe for harvesting.

“We first verified 30 cowpea lines as sources of drought tolerance and pest resistance,” Phil recalls. “Using molecular markers, we can identify the genomic regions of the QTLs that are responsible for the desired target phenotype, and stack those QTLs to improve germplasm resistance to drought or pests. It’s a lot easier and quicker, and certainly less hit-or-miss than traditional methods! However, standing alone, QTLs are not the silver bullet in plant breeding. What happens is that QTL information complements visual selection. Moreover, QTL discovery must be based on accurate phenotyping information, which is the starting point, providing pointers on where to look within the cowpea genome. Molecular breeding can improve varieties for several traits in tandem,” suggests Phil. “Hence, farmers can expect a more rapid delivery of cowpea varieties that are not only higher-yielding, but also resistant to several stresses at once.”

And what are Phil and team doing to contribute to making this happen?

The genomic resources from Phase I – especially genotyping platforms and QTL knowledge – are being used in Phase II of the TLI Project to establish breeding paradigms, using molecular breeding approaches,” Phil reveals. He adds that these approaches include marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS) and marker assisted back-crossing (MABC). “These paradigms were tested in the cowpea target countries in Africa,” Phil continues. “By eliminating some phenotyping steps and identifying plants carrying positive-trait alleles for use in crossing, they will also shorten the time needed to breed better-adapted cowpea varieties preferred by farmers and markets.”

… best-yielding lines will be released as improved varieties… others will be used…as elite parents…”

Future work
What of the future? Phil fills us in: “The advanced breeding lines developed in TLI Phase II are now entering multi-location performance testing in the target African countries. It is expected that best-yielding lines will be released as improved varieties, while others will be used in the breeding programmes as elite parents for generating new breeding lines for cowpeas.”

Clearly then, the job is not yet done, as the ultimate goal is to deliver better cowpeas to farmers. But while this goal is yet to be attained and – realistically – can only be some more years down the road, it is also equally clear that Phil and his team have already chalked up remarkable achievements in the quest to improve cowpeas. They hope to continue pressing onwards and upwards in the proposed Tropical Legumes III Project, the anticipated successor to TLI and its twin project TLII – Tropical Legumes II.

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Mar 312014
 
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Vincent Vadez

Vincent Vadez

Today, we travel to yet another sun-kissed spot, leaving California behind but keeping it legumes. We land in Africa for some ground truths on groundnuts with Vincent Vadez (pictured), groundnut research leader for the Tropical Legumes I (TLI) Project. Vincent fills us in on facts and figures on groundnuts and Africa – a tale of ups and downs, triumphs and trials, but also of  ’family’ alliances not feuds, and of problems, yes,  but also their present or potential solutions. On to the story then! Read on to find out why groundnuts are…

….A very mixed bag in Africa
Groundnuts (Arachis hypogaea L), also called peanuts, are a significant subsistence and food crop in sub-Saharan Africa. There, groundnuts are grown in practically every country, with the continent accounting for roughly a quarter of the world’s production. Despite this rosy African statistic, problems abound: for example, nearly half (40 percent) of the of the world’s total acreage for groundnuts is in Africa, which dramatically dims the 25 percent global production quota.

In Africa, groundnuts are typically cultivated in moderate rainfall areas across the continent, usually by women.

In Africa, groundnuts are typically cultivated in moderate rainfall areas across the continent, usually by women. (See editorial note* at the end of the story)

Clearly then, Africa’s yields are low, borne out by telling statistics which show African production at 950 kilos per hectare, in acute contrast to 1.8 tonnes per hectare in Asia.

…every year, yields worth about USD 500 million are lost”

What ails Africa’s production?
The main constraints hampering higher yields and quality in Africa are intermittent drought due to erratic rainfall, as well as terminal drought during maturation. And that is not all, because foliar (leaf) diseases such as the late leaf spots (LLS) or rosette are also taking their toll.  Economically speaking, every year, yields worth about USD 500 million are lost to drought, diseases and pests. Plus, the seeding rates for predominantly bushy groundnut types are low, and therefore insufficient to achieve optimal ground cover. Thus, genetic limitations meet and mingle with major agronomic shortcomings in the cultivation of groundnuts, making it…

…. A tough nut to crack
Groundnuts are mostly cultivated by impoverished farmers living in the semi-arid tropics where rainfall is both low and erratic.

Tough it may be for crop scientists, but clearly not too tough for these two youngsters shelling groundnuts at Mhperembe Market, Malawi.

. Tough it may be for crop scientists, but clearly not too tough for these two youngsters shelling groundnuts at Mhperembe Market, Malawi.

“To help double the productivity of this crop over the next 10 years, we need to improve groundnuts’ ability to resist drought and diseases without farmers needing to purchase costly agricultural inputs,” says Vincent.

But the crop’s genetic structure is complex, plus, for resistance to these stresses, its genetic diversity is narrow. “Groundnuts are therefore difficult and slow to breed using conventional methods,” says Vincent. And yet, as we shall see later, groundnuts are distinctly disadvantaged when it comes to molecular breeding. But first, the good news!

…wild relatives have genes for resisting the stresses… molecular markers can play a critical role”

Why blood is thicker than water, and family black sheep are valued
Kith and kin are key in groundnut science. Vincent points out that groundnuts have several wild relatives that carry the necessary genes for resisting the stresses – especially leaf diseases – to which the crop is susceptible. These genes can be transferred from the wild cousins to the cultivated crop by blending conventional and molecular breeding techniques. But that is easier said than done, because cultivated groundnuts can’t cross naturally with their wild relatives owing to chromosomic differences.

Groundnut flower

Groundnut flower

“In modern breeding, molecular markers can play a critical role,” says Vincent. “Using markers, one can know the locations of genes of interest from an agronomic perspective, and we can then transfer these genes from the wild relatives into the groundnut varieties preferred by farmers and their markets.”

[The] ‘variegated’ partnership has been essential for unlocking wild groundnut diversity…”

Partnerships in and out of Africa, core capacities
“Partners are key to this work,” says Vincent. The groundnut work is led by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), with collaborators in the target countries, which are Malawi (Chitedze Agricultural Research Centre), Senegal (Institut sénégalais de recherches agricoles ‒ ISRA) and Tanzania (Agricultural Research Institute, Naliendele), Moving forward together, continuous capacity building for partners in Africa is part and parcel of the project. To this end, there have been several training workshops in core areas such as molecular breeding and phenotyping, farmer field days in the context of participatory varietal selection, as well as longer-term training on more complex topics such as drought, in addition to equipping the partners with the critical infrastructure needed for effective phenotyping.

Freshly dug-up groundnuts.

Freshly dug-up groundnuts.

Further afield out of Africa, Vincent’s team also collaborates with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA), France’s Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement ‒ CIRAD, and USA’s University of Georgia.

This ‘variegated’ partnership has been essential for unlocking the wild groundnut diversity when about 12 years ago the EMBRAPA team successfully generated a number of ‘synthetic’ groundnuts from their wild relatives. Unlike the wild groundnuts, these synthetic groundnuts can be crossed to the cultivated type, bringing with them treasure troves of beneficial genes pertaining to the wild that would be otherwise unreachable for the cultivated varieties. Taking this one step further, the CIRAD‒ISRA team, in a close North‒South partnership, has used one of the synthetics from the Brazilian programme to generate new genetic diversity in the groundnut cultivar Fleur11. They are using additional synthetics from ICRISAT to further enlarge this genetic diversity in cultivated groundnuts.

These techniques and tools provide signposts on the genome of varieties for characteristics of importance”

A world first for an ‘orphan’, goals achieved, and what next
Among other goals, the team notably achieved a world first: “To produce the first SSR-based genetic linkage map for cultivated groundnuts!” declares Vincent. SSR stands for simple sequence repeat. The map was published in 2009,  followed later on by a groundnut consensus map in 2012.

Youngster bearing fresh groundnuts along River Gambia in Senegal.

Youngster bearing fresh groundnuts along River Gambia in Senegal.

But what do these maps and their publication mean for groundnut production? Vincent explains: “These techniques and tools provide signposts on the genome of varieties for characteristics of importance ‒ for instance, resistance to a disease ‒ and these are used in combination to speed up the development of groundnut varieties that are more resistant to the stresses found in the harsh environments where most of the tropical world’s poor farmers live. Accelerating development means quicker delivery to farmers who are at high risk of going hungry. TLI Phase I produced synthetic groundnuts with new genes for disease resistance.”

In Phase II of the TLI Project which terminates in mid-2014, the team has continued to identify new genetic and genomic resources, for instance new sources of drought resistance from the germplasm and which are currently being used in the development of new breeding stocks. What is significant about this is that groundnuts ‒ like most other members of the legume family ‒ do not have much in the way of genomic and molecular-genetic resources, and are in fact consequently referred to in some circles as ‘orphans’ of the genome revolution. The focus has also been on resistance to rust, early and late leaf spot, and rosette – all economically critical diseases – by tapping the resilience of GBPD4, a cultivar resistant to rust and leaf spot, and introducing its dual resistance to fortify the most popular varieties against these diseases. The team also hopes to scale up these promising examples.

We believe this team is firmly on the way to fulfilling their two-fold project objectives which were: (1) to develop genomic resources and produce the first molecular-breeding products of the crop by injecting  disease resistance (from TLI Phase I work) into farmer- and market-preferred varieties; and, (2)  to lay the foundation for future marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS) breeding by tapping on newly identified sources of drought tolerance.

 the genetic stocks that hold the most promise to overcome leaf disease are found in the wild relatives… A thorough reflection is needed to combine good genetics with sound agronomic management”

The future
But the team is not resting on their laurels, as the work will not stop with the fulfillment of project objectives. In many ways, their achievements are in fact just the beginning. The new breeding stocks developed during TLI Phase II need to be evaluated further for their drought tolerance and disease resistance prior to their deployment in breeding programmes, and this activity ‒ among others ‒ is included for the next phase of the work in the proposed Tropical Legumes III project. In particular, the genetic stocks that hold the most promise to overcome leaf disease are found in the wild relatives. Thus, the existing materials need to be fully exploited and more need to be produced to cover the full breadth of potential stresses. Vincent adds “Of course an increasing part of the efforts will be about assuring quality evaluation data, meaning we must continue to significantly enhance the capacity ‒ both human and physical ‒ of our partners in target countries. Last but not least, the good wheat and rice cultivars that directly arose from the green revolution would have been nothing without nitrogen fertiliser and irrigation.” Vincent adds that the same applies to groundnuts: they are cultivated in infertile soil, at seeding rates that are unlikely to optimise productivity.

Groundnut drawing

Groundnut drawing

For this reason, and others explained above, “A thorough reflection is needed to combine good genetics with sound agronomic management,” Vincent concludes, stressing the importance of what he terms as ‘looking beyond  the fence’. Vincent’s parting shot, as our conversation draws to close: “In fact, I have grown increasingly convinced over the past year that we probably overlook those agronomic aspects in our genetic improvements at our peril, and we clearly need a re-think of how to better combine genetic improvement with the  most suitable and farmer-acceptable agronomic management of the crop.”

Much food for thought there! And probably the beginnings of an animated conversation to which a groundnut crop model, on which Vincent and team are currently working, could soon yield some interesting answers on the most suitable genetic-by-management packages, and therefore guide the most adequate targets for crop improvement.

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*Editorial note: Erratum – Photo changed on April 8 2014, as the previous one depicted chickpeas, not groundnuts. We  apologise to our readers for the error.

Mar 202014
 
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Jeff Ehlers

Jeff Ehlers

Our guest today is Jeff Ehlers (pictured), Programme Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Jeff’s an old friend of GCP, most familiar to the GCP community in his immediate past stomping grounds at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), USA, leading our research to improve cowpea production in the tropics, for which sunny California offers a perfect spot for effective phenotyping. Even then, Jeff was not new to CGIAR, as we’ll see from his career crossings. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves in narrating Jeff’s tale. First, what would high-end cowpea research have to do with crusading and catapults? Only Jeff can tell us, so please do read on!

The GCP model was a very important way of doing business for CGIAR and the broader development community, enabling partnerships between international research institutes, country programmes and CGIAR. This is particularly important as the possibilities of genomics-led breeding become even greater…If anything, we need to see more of this collaborative model.”

Growing green, sowing the seed, trading glory for grassroots
Growing up in USA’s Golden State of California, green-fingered Jeff had a passion for cultivating the land rather than laboratory samples, harbouring keen ambitions to become a farmer. This did not change with the years as he transited from childhood to adolescence. The child grew into a youth who was an avid gardener: in his student days, Jeff threw his energy into creating a community garden project ‒ an initiative which promptly caught the eye of his high school counsellor, who suggested Jeff give the Plant Science Department at UCR a go for undergraduate studies.

And thus the seeds of a positively blooming career in crop research were sown. However, remaining true to the mission inspired by his former community-centred stomping grounds, a grassroots focus triumphed over glory-hunting for Jeff, who – no stranger to rolling his sleeves up and getting his fingers into the sod – found himself, when at the University of California, Davis, for his advanced studies, embarking on what was to become a lifelong undertaking, first at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and then at UCR, dedicated to a then under-invested plant species straggler threatening to fall by the research world’s wayside. With a plethora of potential genomic resources and modern breeding tools yet to be tapped into, Jeff’s cowpea crusade had begun in earnest…

GCP’s TLI was essential in opening that door and putting us on the path to increased capability – both for cowpea research enablement and human capacity”

Straggler no more: stardom beckons, and a place at the table for the ‘orphan’
And waiting in the wings to help Jeff along his chosen path was the Generation Challenge Programme (GCP), which, in 2007, commissioned Jeff’s team to tackle the cowpea component of the flagship Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project, implemented by GCP under the Legumes Research Initiative. TLI is mainly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The significance of this project, Jeff explains, was considerable: “The investment came at a very opportune time, and demonstrated great foresight on the part of both GCP and the Foundation.” Prior to this initiative, he further explains, “there had been no investment by anyone else to allow these orphan crops to participate in the feast of technologies and tools suddenly available and that other major crops were aggressively getting into. Before GCP and Gates funding for TLI came along, it was impossible to think about doing any kind of modern breeding in the orphan grain legume crops. GCP’s TLI was essential in opening that door and putting us on the path to increased capability – both for cowpea research enablement and human capacity.”

Flashback: UCR cowpea team in 2009. Left to right: Wellington Muchero, Ndeye Ndack Diop (familiar, right?!), Raymond Fenton, Jeff Ehlers, Philip Roberts and Timothy Close in a greenhouse on the UCR campus, with cowpeas in the background. Ndeye Ndack and Jeff seem to love upstaging each other. She came to UCR as a postdoc working under Jeff, then she moved to GCP, with oversight over the TLI project, thereby becoming Jeff's boss, then he moved to the Foundation with oversight over TLI. So, what do you think might be our Ndeye Ndack's next stop once GCP winds up in 2014? One can reasonably speculate....!

Flashback: UCR cowpea team in 2009. Left to right: Wellington Muchero, Ndeye Ndack Diop (familiar, right?!), Raymond Fenton, Jeff Ehlers, Philip Roberts and Timothy Close in a greenhouse on the UCR campus, with cowpeas in the background. Ndeye Ndack and Jeff seem to love upstaging each other. She came to UCR as a postdoc working under Jeff, then she moved to GCP, with oversight over the TLI project, thereby becoming Jeff’s boss, then he moved to the Foundation with oversight over TLI. So, what do you think might be our Ndeye Ndack’s next stop once GCP winds up in 2014? One can reasonably speculate….!

Of capacity building, genomics and ‘X-ray’ eyes
This capacity-building cornerstone – which, in the case of the TLI project, is mainly funded by the European Commission – is, says Jeff, a crucial key to unlocking the potential of plant science globally. “The next generation of crop scientists ‒ particularly breeders ‒ need to be educated in the area of genomics and genomics-led breeding.”

While stressing the need for robust conventional breeding efforts, Jeff continues: ”Genomics gives the breeder X-ray eyes into the breeding programme, bringing new insights and precision that were previously unavailable.”

In this regard, Jeff has played a leading role in supporting skill development and organising training for his team members and colleagues across sub-Saharan Africa, meaning that partners from Mozambique, Burkina Faso and Senegal, among others, are now, in Phase II of the TLI project, moving full steam ahead with marker-assisted and backcross legume breeding at national level, thanks to the genotyping platform and genetic fingerprints from Phase I of the project. The genotyping platform, which is now publicly available to anyone looking to undertake marker-assisted breeding for cowpeas, is being widely used by research teams not only in Africa but also in China. Thanks in part then to Jeff and his team, the wheels of the genomics revolution for cowpeas are well and truly in motion.

Undergoing the transition from phenotypic old-school plant breeder to modern breeder with all the skills required was a struggle…it was challenging to teach others the tools when I didn’t know them myself!…without GCP, I would not have been able to grow in this way.”

Talking about a revolution, comrades-in-arms, and a master mastering some more
But as would be expected, the road to revolution has not always been entirely smooth. Reflecting on some of the challenges he encountered in the early TLI days, and highlighting the need to invest not only in new students, but also in upgrading the existing skills of older scientists, Jeff tells of a personal frustration that had him battling it out alongside the best of them: “Undergoing the transition from phenotypic old-school plant breeder to modern breeder with all the skills required was a struggle,” he confides, continuing: “It was challenging to teach others the tools when I didn’t know them myself!”

Thus, in collaboration with his cowpea comrades from the global North and South, Jeff braved the steep learning curve before him, and came out on the other side smiling – an accomplishment he is quick to credit to GCP: “It was a very interesting and fruitful experience, and without GCP, I would not have been able to grow in this way,” he reveals. Holding the collaborative efforts facilitated by the broad GCP network particularly dear, Jeff continues: “The GCP model was a very important way of doing business for CGIAR and the broader development community, enabling partnerships between international research institutes, country programmes and CGIAR. This is particularly important as the possibilities of genomics-led breeding become even greater…If anything, we need to see more of this collaborative model.”

GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform addresses the lack of modern breeding skills in the breeding community as a whole, globally…The Platform provides extremely valuable and much-needed resources for many public peers around the world, especially in Africa…”

One initiative which has proved especially useful in giving researchers a leg up in the mastery of modern breeding tools, Jeff asserts, is GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP): “IBP addresses the lack of modern breeding skills in the breeding community as a whole, globally. By providing training in the use of genomic tools that are becoming available, from electronic capture of data through to genotyping, phenotyping, and all the way to selective decision-making and analysis of results, IBP will play a critical role in helping folks to leverage on the genomics revolution that’s currently unfolding,” Jeff enthuses, expanding: “The Platform provides extremely valuable and much-needed resources for many public peers around the world, especially in Africa where such one-off tools that are available commercially would be otherwise out of reach.”

Conqueror caparisoned to catapult: life on the fast lane and aiming higher
Well-versed in conquering the seemingly unobtainable, Jeff shares some pearls of wisdom for young budding crop scientists:”Be motivated by the mission, and the ideas and the science, and not by what’s easy, or by what brings you the most immediate gratification,” he advises, going on to explain: “Cowpeas have been through some really tough times. Yet, my partners and I stuck it out, remained dedicated and kept working.” And the proof of Jeff’s persistence is very much in the pudding, with his team at UCR having become widely acclaimed for their success in catapulting cowpeas into the fast lane of crop research.

It was a success that led him to the hallways of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where, after two decades at UCR, Jeff is currently broadening his legume love affair to also embrace beans, groundnuts, chickpeas, pigeonpeas and soya beans.

February 2014: Jeff donning his new Gates hat (albeit with a literal ICRISAT cap on). Behind him is a field of early maturing pigeonpea experiment at ICRISAT India.

February 2014: Jeff donning his (now-not-so-)new Gates hat and on the road, visiting ICRISAT in India. Behind him is an ICRISAT experimental field of early-maturing pigeonpeas. Here, our conquering crusader is ‘helmeted’ in an ICRISAT cap, even if not horsed and caparisoned for this ‘peacetime’ pigeonpea mission!

On his future professional aspirations, he says: “The funding cut-backs for agriculture which started before 1990 or so gutted a lot of the capacity in the public sector, both in the national programmes in Africa but also beyond. I hope to play a role in rebuilding some of the capacity to ensure that people take full advantage of the technical resources available, and to enable breeding programmes to function at a higher level than they do now.”

Jeff (foreground) inspecting soya bean trials in Kakamega, Kenya.

Jeff (foreground) inspecting soya bean trials in Kakamega, Kenya, in January 2013. Next to Jeff is Emmanuel Monyo, the coordinator of the Tropical Legumes II (TLII) project – TLI’s twin – whose brief is seed multiplication. TLII is therefore responsible for translating research outputs from TLI into tangible products in the form of improved legume varieties.

Whilst it’s been several years since he donned his wellington boots for the gardening project of his youth, what’s clear in this closing statement is an unremitting and deeply ingrained sense of community spirit – albeit with a global outlook – and a fight for the greater good that remain at the core of Jeff’s professional philosophy today.

No doubt, our cowpea champion and his colleagues have come a long way, with foundations now firmly laid for modern breeding in the crop on a global scale, and – thanks to channels now being established to achieve the same for close relatives of the species – all signs indicate that the best is yet to come!

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Mar 072014
 
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Women in science

“Women can do advanced agricultural science, and do it well!” Elizabeth Parkes, cassava researcher, Ghana

Being a woman scientist in today’s world (or at any time in history!) is no mean feat, science traditionally having been the domain of men. We are therefore drawn to this sub-theme: Inspiring change, in addition to the global theme Equality for women is progress for all, To mark International Women’s Day tomorrow, UNESCO has developed an interactive tool which collates facts and figures from across the world on women in science. The cold scientific truth displayed in the attractive petri dish design shows that only 30 percent of researchers worldwide are women.

At GCP, we have been fortunate enough to have a cross-generational spectrum of, not only women scientists, but that even rarer species, women science leaders – who head a project or suite of projects and activities, and who actively nurture and mentor future science leaders – to ultimately contribute to the fulfilment of our mission: Using genetic diversity and advanced plant science to improve crops for greater food security in the developing world. The United Nations has designated 2014 as the Year of Family Farming. GCP’s women researchers have contributed to improving the lives of their farming counterparts the world over, especially in the developing world where on average, 43 percent of the agricultural labour force are women, rising to 60 percent and 70 percent in some regions. (FAO)

Please mind the gap…to leap to that all-important initiation into science

UNESCO's Women in Science interactive tool

UNESCO’s Women in Science interactive tool

The UNESCO tool mentioned above and embedded to the left allows users to “explore and visualise gender gaps in the pipeline leading to a research career, from the decision to get a doctorate degree to the fields of science that women pursue and the sectors in which they work” with this affirmation: “Perhaps most importantly, the data tool shows just how important it is to encourage girls to pursue mathematics and science at a young age.”

In our International Women’s Day multimedia expo, we profile the life and work of a selection of our smart scientific sisters through words, pictures and sound, to explain just how they overcame obstacles, from taking that first hurdle to study science at an early age, to mobility up the research rungs to reach the very top of their game, all the while balancing work, life and family.

A blogpost fest to introduce our first special guests

Masdiar Bustamam

Masdiar Bustamam

We begin our show with a blogpost fest, and first up is GCP’s original Mother Nature, renowned scientist and constant gardener of the molecular breeding plot, Masdiar Bustamam. After a virtual world-tour of research institutes early on in her career, Masdiar took the knowledge of molecular breeding back home, to the Indonesian Center for Agricultural Biotechnology and Genetic Resources Research and Development (ICABIOGRAD), where she personally took up the challenge to work with the fledgling world of biotechnology, set up a lab, and helped establish molecular breeding in her country. In an amazing 37-years-odd research career, Masdiar tended not only tender rice shoots, but also budding blossoms in the form of her many students, whom she nurtured and mentored throughout their studies, and who have now seamlessly inherited her mantle to carry on the mission with the same ever-bright spirit. More

Rebecca Nelson

Rebecca Nelson

We now skip continents and oceans  to meet the feisty, continent- and crop-hopping scientist, Rebecca Nelson (Cornell University, USA). “I wanted to get out into the world and try and have a practical impact instead of doing research for the sake of research,” Rebecca says – and that she did, first leaving her native USA to work in the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. There she teamed up with friend and colleague, Masdiar Bustamam, to establish Masdiar’s laboratory at ICABIOGRAD, Indonesia. The American continent then called her back, where she moved countries and institutes, and switched from rice to maize research, marking the launch of her GCP experience – which simultaneously introduced her to her a whole new network of international crop researchers. This rich research tapestry was  woven together by a poignant pain deep in her heart, as a mother herself, of “so many mothers not being able to feed their families.” Rebecca wanted to combat this problem,  and crop science is her weapon. More

Zeba Seraj

Zeba Seraj

Next, we meet another true mother of molecular plant breeding, Zeba Seraj (University of Dhaka, Bangladesh). Zeba, whose mind is perpetually on call in the pursuit of science, has been around the world, and from plants to animals and back again in the course of her multifaceted science career. During her PhD and postdoc experience in the UK, still with fauna, she cultivated her expertise in molecular biology and recombinant DNA technology, but a lack of opportunities in that field back in Bangladesh saw her enter the world of crop science, where she has remained ever since. Back at her alma mater, the University of Dhaka, she founded a molecular biology lab, and has nurtured and inspired generations of young biochemists. Her GCP project, using molecular markers to develop salt-tolerant rice, was a real eye-opener for her, and allowed her to truly ‘see’ how applied science and such a practical project would have a direct impact on her country’s food security, now and in the future. More

Sigrid Heuer

Sigrid Heuer

Our next scientist is also truly motivated by putting theory into practice through the application of upstream research all the way down the river, and directly into farmers’ fields. Sigrid Heuer (now with the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics), a German national, has pursued her scientific ventures in Europe, Africa, Asia, and now Oceania, with many challenges along the way. Enter the Generation Challenge Programme, and the chance for Sigrid (then at IRRI)  to lead a major project, the Pup1 rice phosphorus uptake project, which taught Sigrid the A–Z of project management, and gave her ample scope for professional growth. Her team made a major scientific breakthrough, which was not only documented in international journals, but was also widely covered by global media.  From this pinnacle, Sigrid  passed on the baton to other scientists and moved on to new conquests. More

Arllet Portugal

Arllet Portugal

Now, all this research we’ve been celebrating generates a massive amount of data, as you can well imagine. What exactly can our scientists do with all that data, and how can they organise them? GCP’s Arllet Portugal, hailing from The Philippines, gives us the lowdown on smart and SHARP data management whilst also giving us some insights into how she started out on the long and winding road to leading data management for GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform. In particular, Arllet describes the considerable challenge of changing researchers’ mindsets regarding the importance of effective data management in the context of their research, and enthuses over the excitement with which developing-country researchers welcome the GCP-funded electronic tablets they now use to collect and record data directly in the field. More

Armin Bhuiya

Armin Bhuiya

If there were a muse for young women scientists, it might very well be the subject of our next blogpost profile, Armin Bhuiya (Bangladesh Rice Research Institute). After completing her master’s degree on hybrid rice in her native Bangladesh, Armin was already thinking like a true change-catalyst scientist, trying to discover what line of research would be the most useful for her country and the world. After much deliberation, she embarked on a PhD focusing on developing salt- and submergence-tolerant rice. This wise choice would take her to study under the expert eye of Abdelbagi Ismail at IRRI, in The Philippines, with the helping hand of a GCP–DuPont postgraduate fellowship. There, she learnt much in the way of precise and meticulous research, while also taking advantage to self-train in modern molecular plant breeding methods. Our bright resourceful student has now advanced to the patient erudite teacher – as she takes home her knowledge of high-tech research methods to share with her colleagues and students in Bangladesh. More

Elizabeth Parkes

Elizabeth Parkes

Hello Africa! Switching continents and media, we now we move from the written medium to tune in to the melodic tones of Elizabeth Parkes (Crops Research Institute [CRI] of Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research [CSIR], currently on leave of absence at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture [ IITA]). We’re now at profile number seven in GCP’s gallery of women in science. Elizabeth, who is GCP’s Lead Cassava Researcher in Ghana, narrates an all-inclusive engaging story on the importance to agriculture of women scientists, women farmers, and cassava the wonder crop – all captured on memorable sound waves in this podcast.

If the gravity of words inscribed holds more weight, you can also read in depth about Elizabeth in a blogpost on this outstanding sister of science. Witness the full radiance of Elizabeth’s work in the life-changing world in which she operates; as she characteristically says, “I’ve pushed to make people recognise that women can do advanced agricultural science, and do it well.” And she is no exception to her own rule, as she grew professionally, apparently keeping pace with some of the giant cassava she has helped to develop through the years. But it is her role as nurturer, mentor and teacher that really raises her head-and-shoulders above the rest, from setting up a pioneering biotech lab at CRI–CSIR to conscientiously mentoring her many students and charges in work as in life, because, for Elizabeth, capacity building and cassava are inextricably coupled! More

Marie-Noëlle Ndjiondjop

Marie-Noëlle Ndjiondjop

In the wake of some recent high-profile screen awards, we close our multimedia expo with impressions of our science sisterhood through the medium of the seventh art: the magic visual world of the movies!  A good fit for a Friday!

The following tasteful and tasty (you’ll see why!) blogpost takes our film fans right onto the red carpet to rub shoulders with our scientific screen stars!

The first screen star you’ll meet is Marie-Noëlle Ndjiondjop (Africa Rice Center), Principal Investigator (PI) of GCP’s Rice Research Initiative, who opens the video-viewing session with seven succulent slices of rice research delight. Her movies are set in the rice-growing lands of Africa, where this savoury cereal is fast becoming a staple, and tackles the tricky topics of rice-growing constraints, capacity building, molecular breeding methods, and the colossal capacity of community in collaborative research projects.

Jonaliza Lanceras-Siangliw

Jonaliza Lanceras-Siangliw

The following feature introduces the talented GCP PI Jonaliza Lanceras-Siangliw (BIOTEC, Thailand), whose community-minded project, set in the Mekong region, focused on strengthening rice breeding programmes by using a genotyping building strategy and improving phenotyping capacity for biotic and abiotic stresses. Though this title is something of a spoiler alert, we hope you tune in to this comprehensive reel to see the reality of molecular rice breeding in the Mekong. More

Soraya Leal-Bertioli

Soraya Leal-Bertioli

Last, and by no means least, is a captivating collage of clips featuring GCP researcher, Soraya Leal-Bertioli (EMBRAPA, Brazil) waxing lyrical about that hard genetic nut to crack: the groundnut, and how GCP’s Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project was crucial in getting the crop breeding community to share genetic resources, molecular markers, knowledge, and tools on a cross-continental initiative breaking boundaries in multiple ways. Video collage

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Mar 072014
 
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Two in one, in more ways than one
Armin Bhuiya

Armin Bhuiya

Armin Bhuiya (pictured) is a dynamic and lively young geneticist and plant breeder, who has made huge strides in tracking crucial  genes in Bangladeshi rice landraces (or traditional farmer varieties). Armin took a ‘sandwich’ approach twinning two traits  – salt and submergence tolerance – in order to boost farmers’ yields. Her quest for salt-impervious ‘amphibian’ rice has seen her cross frontiers to The Philippines, and back to her native Bangladesh with solutions that will make a difference, borrowing a leaf along the way from the mythical submarine world of Atlantis for life under water. Using cutting-edge crop science, Armin is literally recreating out-of-this-world stuff working two elements of the ancient world  earth and water – plus that commodity that was then so prized enjoying a  premium comparable to gems: salt. Read on! 

A rice heritage, and the ‘sandwich’ saga and submarine search both begin…

“My father worked at the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), which basically means I grew up in rice research. You could say that I was born and bred in agriculture and this inspired me to study agriculture myself,” says Armin. As a result of these early experiences, Armin started a master’s degree in 2006 on genetics and plant breeding, specialising in hybrid rice. Ever since, rice has been her religion, following in the footsteps of her father to join the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI).

Her other defining hallmark is her two-in-one approach. Sample this: once she completed her two-in-one master’s, Armin went on to study for a PhD in the same twin areas at Bangladesh Agricultural University. Pondering long and hard on what research would be of most practical use, she asked herself “What is the need? What research will be useful for my country and for the world?” (Editorial aside: out of this world work, apparently…)

Not content  pondering  over the question by herself, her natural two-track approach kicked in. Mulling with her colleagues from BRRI, the answer, it first seemed, was to find ways to produce salt-tolerant high-yielding rice. In Bangladesh and many other parts of South and Southeast Asia, climate change is driving up the sea level, spreading salinity further and deeper across low-lying coastal rice-fields, beyond the bounds where salt-drenched terrain has long been a perennial problem. Modern rice varieties are highly sensitive to salt. So, despite the low yields and quality, farmers continue to favour hardy traditional rice landraces that can take the heat and hit from the salt. Proceeding from this earthy farmer reality and inverting the research–development continuum, Armin needed no further thinking as the farmers showed the way to go. Her role and the difference she could make was to track the ‘treasure’ genes locked in these landraces that were transferred to high-yielding but salt-sensitive rice varieties, to fortify them against salt.

But that was not all. There’s power in numbers and consulting others, harnessing the best in diversity. In comes the two-track approach again, with Armin now turning to fellow scientists again, with the reality from farmers. Upon further consultations with colleagues, yet another fundamental facet emerged that could not be ignored. Apparently, salt-impervious rice alone would not be not enough, and here’s why. Salt and tides aside, during the rainy season inland, flash floods regularly submerge the fields, literally drowning the crop. More than 20 million hectares in South and Southeast Asia are affected – including two million hectares in coastal Bangladesh alone. The southern belt of Bangladesh is particularly affected, as modern varieties are sensitive to not only submergence but also salinity. So Armin had her work cut out for her, and she now knew that for the fruit of her labour to boost rice production in coastal regions as well (two tracks again! Inland and coastal low-lying rice-lands), what she needed to do was to work on producing high-yielding, salt-impervious, ’amphibian’ rice that could withstand not only salinity but also submarine life. In other words, pretty much rice for a latter-day real-life rendition of the mythical Atlantis.

Armin has successfully incorporated dual tolerance to salinity and submergence in the popular Bangladeshi mega-variety BR11. This will provide the ideal salt-tolerant ‘amphibian’ rice suitable for farmers in the flood-prone salty-water-drenched swaths of southern Bangladesh.

Through the door of opportunity
The opportunity that opened the door for Armin to fulfil her dream was a DuPont Pioneer postgraduate fellowship implemented by GCP. The competitive programme provides grants for postgraduate study in plant breeding and genetics to boost the yields of staple food crops. This fellowship took Armin to Filipino shores and the molecular breeding labs at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Here she got what she terms a golden opportunity to work under the tutelage of Abdelbagi Ismail, a leading plant physiologist focusing on overcoming abiotic stresses. From him, Armin learnt how carry out the precise meticulous research required for identifying quantitative trait loci (QTLs).

Armin at work at the greenhouse.

Armin at work at the IRRI greenhouse in 2011.

Armin conducted her research with two different mapping populations, both derived from Bangladeshi landraces (Kutipatnai and Ashfal). She found a total of nine quantitative trait loci (QTLs) from one mapping population and 82 QTLs from another for tolerance to salinity stress at seedling stage (QTL is a gene locus where allelic variation is associated with variation in a quantitative trait). Incorporating these additional genes into a high-yielding variety will help to develop promising salt-tolerant varieties in future. She has also successfully incorporated QTLs for dual tolerance to salinity (Saltol) and submergence (Sub1) in the popular Bangladeshi mega-variety, BR11. Stacking (or ‘pyramiding’ in technical terms) Saltol and Sub1 QTLs in BR11 will provide the ideal salt-tolerant ‘amphibian’ rice suitable for farmers in the flood-prone salty-water-drenched swaths of southern Bangladesh.

I know what to do and what is needed… I am going to share what I learned with my colleagues at BRRI and agricultural universities, as well as teach these techniques to students”

Dream achiever and sharer: aspiring leader inspiring change
The Pioneer–GCP fellowship has given Armin the opportunity to progress professionally. But, more than that, it means that through this remarkable young scientist, others from BRRI will benefit – as will her country and region. “While I was at IRRI,” Armin says, “I trained myself in modern molecular plant-breeding methods, as I knew that this practical experience in high-tech research methods would definitely help Bangladesh. I know what to do and what is needed. I am going to share what I learned with my colleagues at BRRI and agricultural universities, as well as teach these techniques to students. It makes me very happy and my parents very proud that the fellowship has helped me to make my dream come true.”

Away from professional life, there have been benefits at home too, with these benefits delivered with Armin’s aplomb and signature style in science – doing two in one, in more ways than one. This time around, the approach has led to dual doctorates for a dual-career couple in different disciplines: “When I went to The Philippines” Armin reveals, “my husband decided to come with me, and took the opportunity to study for a PhD in development communications. So we were both doing research at the same time!”

While Armin’s research promises to make a real difference in coastal rice-growing areas, Armin herself has the potential to lead modern plant breeding at her institute, carry GCP work forward in the long term, post-GCP, and to inspire others as she herself was inspired – to make dreams come true and stimulate change. An inspired rice scientist is herself an inspiration. You will agree with us that Armin personifies Inspiring change, our favoured sub-theme for International Women’s Day this year.

Go, Armin, Go! We’re mighty proud of what you’ve achieved, which we have no doubt serves as inspiration for others!

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Mar 062014
 
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Restless Rebecca
Rebecca Nelson

Rebecca Nelson

I’m a mother and a wife. The idea of so many mothers not being able to feed their families, and so many children not getting the nutrients they need to reach their potential, has always pained me.” – Rebecca Nelson (pictured), Professor, Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology, Cornell University, USA

In this dispatch from the ‘frontline’, fired up and leading the charge against crop disease is ‘frontier’ scientist, restless Rebecca Nelson. Where does Rebecca’s restlessness and consequent fire come from? She says it has always bothered her that a billion people go hungry every single day

Wrestling Rebecca: feeding families one disease-resistant crop at a time
Wanting to remedy this billion-strong calamity, Rebecca has spent the last quarter century working with national and international institutes in Asia, Africa and the Americas. During this time, she has focused on understanding the ways in which plants defend themselves against diseases.

“An amazing percentage of crops are lost to pests and diseases in the developing world each year, which in turn leads to lack of food and local economies,” she says. “These farmers can’t afford the herbicides and pesticides that developed-world farmers use to protect their crops, and those are not great solutions to the problems anyway. So it’s important to find ways to help these crops defend themselves.”

This means identifying crops with disease-resistant traits and using them to breed disease-resistant crops with long-lasting protection from a multitude of diseases.

We were really grateful that the GCP funded us so we could continue to understand and build resistance to rice blast and bacterial blight, and to connect the work on rice and maize”

Travels and travails to make a difference
After completing a PhD in zoology at the University of Washington, USA, in 1988, Rebecca spent eight years in The Philippines at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and then five years at the International Potato Center in Peru. “I wanted to get out into the world and try and have a practical impact instead of doing research for the sake of research,” she says.

During her time in The Philippines, Rebecca worked on several rice disease-resistance projects. She was to continue many of these projects nine years later, as part of her GCP project – Targeted discovery of superior disease QTL alleles in the maize and rice. “We were really grateful that GCP funded us so we could continue to understand and build resistance to rice blast and bacterial blight, and to connect the work on rice and maize,” she says.

Rebecca was also delighted to involve her IRRI mentor, Hei Leung (then a GCP Subprogramme Leader for genomics), and friend, Masdiar Bustamam, of the Indonesian Center for Agricultural Biotechnology and Genetic Resources Research and Development (ICABIOGRAD). During her time at IRRI, Rebecca and her IRRI team had worked with Masdiar to establish her laboratory. “It was really pleasing to have Masdiar participate in the project and to see how far she and her lab had come since our earlier collaboration. The difference is that they now made a markedly 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.”

I’ve always been grateful to GCP for supporting me at that transitional stage in my career…. [I] was a relative newbie when it came to working with maize. However, I was lucky to have some really great collaborators…James helped me a lot at the start of the project and throughout. Even though our project is finished, we have teamed up on a number of other projects to continue what we started.

Tentative transition from rice to maize; shunting between class and grant-giving
Despite winning a merit-based competitive grant, Rebecca confesses she wasn’t sure GCP would accept her proposal, owing to her  then limited experience in maize research. “I’ve always been grateful to GCP for supporting me at that transitional stage in my career. I’d just returned from Peru and taken up a position at Cornell and was at that time a relative newbie when it came to working with maize. However, I was lucky to have some really great collaborators.”

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.

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.

One such collaborator, who Rebecca is thankful to have had on her project, was James Gethi, of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), and a leading esearcher in Kenya. At the time, James was a recent Cornell graduate who was returning home to help bolster his nation’s crop-research capabilities. “James helped me a lot at the start of the project and throughout. Even though our project is finished, we have teamed up on a number of other projects to continue what we started.”

At Cornell, Rebecca oversees her own laboratory and still finds time to teach a class on international agriculture and rural development. She also serves as scientific director for the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP), a grants programme funding agricultural research in developing countries.

Growing up with science…and a moderate Rebecca rebellion!
As our conversation draws to a close, Rebecca reveals she is currently skyping from the bedroom she grew up in, in Bethesda, Maryland, half an hour from downtown Washington DC, USA. “I’m down visiting my parents before I jet off to West Africa tomorrow,” she says where she is carrying out her CCRP commitments.

Rebecca credits her parents for encouraging her scientific inquisitiveness and determination to aid those in need. “Both of my parents are physicians, as is my younger brother. I thought I was a rebel with my interest in agriculture, but my younger sister is a farmer and agroecologist, so I guess we’re both straddling agriculture and science,” Rebecca says with a laugh.

“In all honesty though, my parents encouraged all of us to follow what we were fascinated by and passionate about, and for me and my sister, that was agriculture. We reared goats in our suburban backyard, dissected animal road-kills on the kitchen table and even turned the  family swimming pool into a fish-pond because we wanted to learn about fish farming!” Rebecca recollects with great fondness.

I still get a kick out of trying to understand the biology of disease resistance and to try to help develop disease-resistant crops, which will help alleviate the fallout from crop failure and subsequent food shortages in developing nations”

Wife and mum, manager and mentor, and what gives Rebecca a kick
Rebecca says she and her journalist husband, Jonathan Miller, try to encourage their two sons, William and Benjamin, in the same manner. She also says she uses a similar theory as a mentor. “I love interacting with the young talent and I like to think I’ve grown as a person the more that I’ve evolved as a manager and mentor.”

Although she spends most of her time at her desk or on a plane or in a meeting room, Rebecca is always keen to jump back into the field and familiarise herself with the science she is overseeing. “I still get a kick out of trying to understand the biology of disease resistance and to try to help develop disease-resistant crops, which will help alleviate the fallout from crop failure and subsequent food shortages in developing nations.”

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Mar 052014
 
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Two peas in a pod, hand in hand, 

Elizabeth Parkes

In the past, the assumption was always that ‘Africa can’t do this.’ Now, people see that when given a chance to get round circumstances – as GCP has done for us through the provision of resources, motivation, encouragement and training – Africa can achieve so much!…GCP has made us visible and attractive to others; we are now setting the pace and doing science in a more refined and effective manner…Building human capacity is my greatest joy….I’ve pushed to make people recognise that women can do advanced agricultural science, and do it well. To see a talented woman researcher firmly established in her career and with her kids around her is thrilling….Rural families are held together by women, so if you are able to change their lot, you can make a real mark…” –  Elizabeth Parkes, cassava researcher, Ghana

Elizabeth’s PhD is on cassava genetic diversity, combining ability, stability and farmer preference in Ghana. But for Elizabeth, it is not the academic laurels and limelight but rather, a broader vision of social justice which really drives her: “I see African communities where poverty and hunger are seemingly huge problems with no way out; I’m fortunate to be working on a crop whereby, if I put in enough effort, I can bring some solutions. My primary target group in my research is the less privileged, and women in particular have been my friends throughout. Rural families are held together by women, so if you are able to change their lot, you can make a real mark.”

 

…agricultural research was a man’s job!”

A perennial passion for cassava, and walking with giants: Elizabeth with the pick of the crop for the 2014 cassava harvest season at  IITA, Ibadan, Nigeria.

A perennial passion for cassava, and walking with giants: Elizabeth with the pick of the crop for the 2014 cassava harvest season at IITA, Ibadan, Nigeria.

Prowess and prejudice: Breaking the mould and pioneering into pastures new
On first tentatively dipping her toe into the professional waters of crop science when growing up in her native Ghana, initial reactions from her nearest and dearest suggested that carving out a name for herself in her career of choice was never going to be a walk in the park: “As an only girl among eight  boys of whom three were half-siblings, and the youngest child, my father was not very amused; he thought agricultural research was a man’s job!” she recalls. Undeterred and ever more determined to turn this commonly held canard on its head, Elizabeth went on to bag a Bachelors degree in Agriculture, a diploma in Education, and an MPhil degree in Crop Science. During a stint of national service between academic degrees, she approached a scientist engaged in root and tuber projects at Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Crops Research Institute (CRI), offering to carry out some research on cassava, and soon establishing the institute’s first trials in Techiman, in the Brong Ahafo Region,where she was doing her national service. Recognising all the hallmarks of a great scientist, nurturer and leader, her CRI colleagues were quick to welcome this fresh talent into the fold as an Assistant Research Officer, with the full treasure trove of root tuber crops – from cassava to sweet potato to yam and coco-yam, among others – all falling under her remit. Not a bad start for the first woman to be assigned to the project!

Quickly proving herself as a fiercely cerebral researcher with a natural knack for the plant sciences, Elizabeth was encouraged by seasoned (then) GCP scientist, Martin Fregene (their paths had crossed during Elizabeth’s Masters degree thanks to research collaboration with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture – IITA), to embark on a PhD degree with a focus on cassava. Coinciding with an era when links between Martin’s then home institute, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and GCP were beginning to really take off the ground, it was a move that proved timely, and a path which Elizabeth pursued with her characteristic vigour and aplomb, climbing the GCP research ranks from multiple travel-grant recipient to a research fellow, and, more recently, to Lead Researcher for GCP’s cassava work in Ghana. Now a well established cassava connoisseur who regularly rubs shoulders with the crème de la crème of the global crop science community, Elizabeth specialises in drought tolerance and disease resistance in the GCP-related aspects of her work, whilst also turning her hand to biofortification research for GCP sister CGIAR Challenge Programme, HarvestPlus.

… it [biotechnology] was a breakthrough which Elizabeth spearheaded…”

Up, up and away! How a helping hand has led Elizabeth & Co to new professional and research heights
Life aboard the GCP ship, Elizabeth reveals, has offered a wealth of professional opportunities, both on personal and institutional levels. GCP-funded infrastructure, such as weather stations and irrigation systems, has helped to boost yields and enhance the efficiency of CRI trials, she observes. Professional development for herself and her team, she says, has been multifold: “Through our GCP work, we were able to build a lab and kick-start marker-assisted breeding – that ignited the beginning of biotechnology activities in CRI,” Elizabeth asserts.  It was a breakthrough which Elizabeth spearheaded, and which, happily, has since become run-of-the mill practice for the institute: “Now CRI scientists are regularly using molecular tools to do their work and are making cassava crosses on their own.” The positive domino effect of this change in tide cannot be underestimated: “Our once small biotechnology laboratory has evolved into a Centre of Excellence under the West Africa Agricultural Productivity Programme. Its first-class facilities, training courses and guiding hand in finding solutions have attracted countless visiting scientists, both from Ghana and internationally – this means that the subregion is also benefitting enormously.” The GCP’s Genotyping Support Service (GSS), Elizabeth affirms, has also proved an invaluable sidekick to these developments: “Through the GSS, our team learnt how to extract DNA as a first step, and later to re-enact all the activities that were initially done for us externally – data sequencing, interpretation and analysis for example – on a smaller scale in our own lab.” The collection and crunching of data has also become a breeze: “Thanks to GCP’s support, we have become a pace-setter for electronic data gathering using tablets, field notebooks and hand-held devices,” she adds.

….GCP gives you the keys to solving your own problems, and puts structures in place so that knowledge learnt abroad can be transferred and applied at home – it’s been an amazing journey!”

Ruth Prempeh, one of Elizabeth's charges, collecting data for her GCP-funded PhD on cassava post-harvest physiological deterioration. Ruth is one of those whose work–family balance Elizabeth celebrates. Ruth has since submitted her thesis awaiting results. As you'll hear in the accompanying podcast, both of Ruth's young children have each, er, sort of 'attended' two big  GCP events!

Ruth Prempeh, one of Elizabeth’s charges, collecting data for her GCP-funded PhD on cassava post-harvest physiological deterioration. Ruth is one of those whose work–family balance Elizabeth celebrates. Ruth has since submitted her thesis awaiting results. As you’ll hear in the podcast below, both of Ruth’s young children have each, er, sort of ‘attended’ two big GCP events!

People power: capacity building and work–life balance
Elizabeth lights up most when waxing lyrical about the leaps and bounds made by her many students and charges through the years, who – in reaping some of the benefits offered by GCP, such as access to improved genetic materials; forging links with like-minded colleagues near and far, and, critically, capacity building – have gone on to become established and often internationally recognised breeders or researchers, with the impacts of their work posting visible scores in the fight against global food insecurity. On the primordial role of capacity building, she says: “GCP gives you the keys to solving your own problems, and puts structures in place so that knowledge learnt abroad can be transferred and applied at home – it’s been an amazing journey!” Of her female students who’ve surmounted the work–family pendulum challenge, she says: “I’ve pushed to make people recognise that women can do advanced agricultural science, and do it well. To see a talented woman researcher firmly established in her career and with her kids around her is thrilling.”

At IITA, Elizabeth continues to be an inspiration on work–life balance for women working on their PhDs, and more so for young women whose work is on cassava. In a male-dominated environment (global statistics report that women researchers are a meagre 30 percent), this inspiration is critical. .

No ‘I’ in team: tight-knit community a must for kick-starting real and sustainable solutions
As Elizabeth well knows, one swallow does not a summer make: as demonstrated by the GCP’s Communities of Practice (CoPs), she says, strength really does come in numbers: “The GCP Cassava CoP has brought unity amongst cassava breeders worldwide; it’s about really understanding and tackling cassava challenges together, and bringing solutions home.” Bolstering this unified spirit, Elizabeth continues, is the GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP): “With the initial teething problems mainly behind us, IBP is now creating a global community and is an excellent way of managing limited resources, reducing duplication of efforts and allowing people to be more focused.” On helping scientists inundated with information to spot the wood from the trees, she says: “Over the years, lots of data have been generated, but you couldn’t find them! Now, thanks to IBP, you have sequencing information that you can tap into and utilise as and where you need to. It’s very laudable achievement!”

In the past, the assumption was always that ‘Africa can’t do this.’…GCP has made us visible and attractive to others; we are now setting the pace and doing science in a more refined and effective manner.” 

Clearly, keeping the company of giants is not new for Elizabeth (right). This giant cassava tuber is from a 2010 CRI trial crossing improved CIAT material with CRI landraces (traditional farmer varieties. The trial was part of Bright Boakye Peprah’s postgraduate work. Bright has since completed his GCP-funded masters on cassava breeding, and now a full time cassava breeder with CSIR–CRI. He is currently on study leave  pursuing a PhD on cassava biofortification in South Africa. On the left is Joseph Adjebeng-Danquah, a GCP-funded PhD student whose work centres on cassava drought tolerance. Our best quote from Joseph: “It is important to move away from the all too common notion that cassava is an ‘anywhere, anyhow’ crop.”

Clearly, keeping the company of giants is not new for Elizabeth (right). This giant cassava tuber is from a 2010 CRI trial crossing improved CIAT material with CRI landraces (traditional farmer varieties. The trial was part of Bright Boakye Peprah’s postgraduate work. Bright has since completed his GCP-funded master’s  degree on cassava breeding, and now a full time cassava breeder with CSIR–CRI. He is currently on study leave pursuing a PhD on cassava biofortification in South Africa. On the left is Joseph Adjebeng-Danquah, a GCP-funded PhD student whose work centres on cassava drought tolerance. Our best quote from Joseph: “It is important to move away from the all too common notion that cassava is an ‘anywhere, anyhow’ crop.”

Empowered and engaged: African cassava researchers reclaim the driving seat
The bedrock of GCP’s approach, Elizabeth suggests, is the facilitation of that magical much sought-after Holy Grail: self-empowerment. “When I first joined GCP,” she recalls, “I saw myself as somebody from a country programme being given a place at the table; my inputs were recognised and what I said would carry weight in decision-making.” It’s a switch she has seen gain traction at national and indeed regional levels: “In the past, the assumption was always that ‘Africa can’t do this.’ Now, people see that when given a chance to get round circumstances – as GCP has done for us through the provision of resources, motivation, encouragement and training – Africa can achieve so much!” Reflecting on the knock-on effect for African cassava researchers particularly, she concludes: “GCP has made us visible and attractive to others; we are now setting the pace and doing science in a more refined and effective manner.”

Paying it forward and sharing: Helping women, and thereby, communities
Armed with bundles of knowledge as she is, Elizabeth is a firm believer in paying it forward and sharing: “Building human capacity is my greatest joy,” she affirms, citing farmers, breeders, and a Ghanaian private-sector company as just a few of the fortunate beneficiaries of her expertise over recent years. And on sources of motivation, it is not the academic laurels or limelight but rather a broader vision of social justice which really drives her: “I see African communities where poverty and hunger are seemingly huge problems with no way out; I’m fortunate to be working on a crop whereby, if I put in enough effort, I can bring some solutions.” They are solutions which she hopes will be of lasting service to those closest to her heart: “My primary target group in my research is the less privileged, and women in particular have been my friends throughout. Rural families are held together by women, so if you are able to change their lot, you can make a real mark.”

We’re in a blessed and privileged era where cassava, an ancient and once orphan crop, is now receiving lots of attention… I encourage young scientists to come on board!”

Inspired, and inspiring: nurturing budding cassava converts, and seizing opportunities for impact
In terms of future horizons, Elizabeth – who after more than two decades of service at CRI is currently on leave of absence at IITA where she’s working on biofortification of cassava – hopes to thereby further advance her work on cassava biofortification, and perhaps later move into a management role, focusing on decision-making and leading agricultural research leaders with monitoring and evaluation specifically to “ensure that the right people are being equipped with skills and knowledge, and that those people are in turn teaching others.” She is also confident that any young, gifted researcher with an eye on the prize would be foolhardy to overlook what Elizabeth views as a golden opportunity for creating meaningful and lasting impacts: “We’re in a blessed and privileged era where cassava, an ancient and once orphan crop, is now receiving lots of attention. Every agricultural research lead we have in Africa is there to be seized – I encourage young scientists to come on board!” A clear and convincing clarion call to budding breeders or potential cassava converts if ever there was one…. who wants in, in this love-match where cassava and capacity building are truly two peas in a pod?

Like meets like in a fair match: Our cassava champion in a male-dominated environment, Elizabeth, meets her match in Farmer Beatrice who refused to take no for an answer, and beat Elizabeth hands down. Listen to this! 

 

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Mar 042014
 
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‘Made (up) in Ghana’

In the world of crop research as in the fashion industry, there are super-models, mere models, spectators and rank outsiders. Make no bones about it, trusty old cassava (Manihot esculenta) is a crop of very modest beginnings, but now finally strutting the research catwalk alongside the biggest and the best.

Elizabeth Parkes

Elizabeth Parkes

An ancient crop thought to have been first domesticated in Latin America more than 10,000 years ago, it was exported by Portuguese slave traders from Brazil to Africa in the 16th century as a cheap source of carbohydrates. From there, today we travel half a millennium forward in time – and in space, on to Ghana – to catch up with the latest on cassava in the 21st century.

Come on a guided tour with Elizabeth Parkes (pictured), of Ghana’s Crops Research Institute (CRI, of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, CSIR), currently on leave of absence at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

A hard-knock life, but still going strong
In keeping with its humble heritage, cassava is a crop which has long been reputed for being more than a little worn through at the elbows, commonly known as a “poor man’s crop” according to GCP cassava breeder and researcher, Elizabeth Parkes. However, much like a dishevelled duffle coat, what the crop lacks in shimmer and shine, it makes up for in sturdiness and dependability, rising to the occasion time and again by filling a critical gap – that of putting food in bellies – with a readiness and ease that its more sophisticated crop relatives have often struggled to keep up with. Elizabeth explains:  ”It has kept people alive over the years.” By the same token, the crop – now one of Africa’s most important staples – is fondly known in Ghana as bankye, meaning a ‘gift from the government’, thanks to its reliability and capacity to meet needs that other crops cannot. There is even a popular song in the country which pays homage to the crop as an indefatigable evergreen, conquering even the most willful and wily of weeds!

However, as cassava experts such as Elizabeth know only too well, behind this well-intentioned lyrical window dressing is the poignant story of a crop badly in need of a pressing pick-me-up. Hardy as it may seem on the surface, cassava is riddled with myriad problems of a political, physiological, environmental and socioeconomic nature, further compounded by the interactions between these. For starters, while it may be a timeless classic and a must-have item at the family table for a good part of Africa, à la mode it is not, or at least not for short-sighted policy-makers looking first and foremost to tighten their purse strings in straitened times, or for quick-fix, rapid-impact,  silver-bullet solutions: “African governments don’t invest many resources in research. Money is so meager, and funds have mostly come from external agencies looking to develop major cereals such as rice. Cassava has been ignored and has suffered a handicap as a result – it’s more or less an orphan crop now,” Elizabeth laments. Besides having to bear witness to their favourite outfit being left on the funding shelf, cassava breeders such as Elizabeth are also faced with a hotchpotch of hurdles in the field: “In addition to factors such as pests and disease, cassava is a long-season and very labour-intensive crop. It can take a whole year before you can expect to reap any rewards, and if you don’t have a strong team who can step in at different points throughout the breeding  process, you can often find unexpected results at the end of it, and then you have to start all over again,” Elizabeth reveals. Robust as it may be, then, cassava is no easy customer in the field: “After making crosses, you don’t have many seeds to move you to the next level, simply because with cassava, you just don’t get the numbers: some are not compatible, some are not flowering; it’s a real bottleneck that needs to be overcome,” she affirms.

No time for skirting the issue
And at the ready to flex their research muscles and rise to these considerable challenges was Elizabeth and her Ghanaian CRI  team, who – with GCP support and in unison with colleagues from across Africa and the wider GCP cassava community – have been working flat out to put cassava firmly back on the research runway.

Thanks to funders such as GCP, who recognised that we couldn’t afford to turn a blind eye to the plight of this struggling crop, cassava has been given a voice…cassava is no longer just a poor man’s staple” 

A cassava farmer in Northern Ghana.

A  cassava farmer in Northern Ghana.

Elizabeth walks us through the team’s game plan: “GCP socioeconomist Glenn Hyman and team undertook a study to identify the best area in Ghana for supporting cassava flowering [Editor's note: Glenn works at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, CIAT]. Armed with that information, we have been applying grafting techniques, using hormones to induce flowering in Ghana and beyond.” The initiative is starting to bear fruit: “At the IITA–Nigeria Ubiaja site, for example, flowering is underway at factory-like efficiency – it’s a great asset. The soil has also greatly improved – we haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact cause yet, but what we’ve seen is that all cultivars there will now flower,” she reveals. Elizabeth’s team has been making steady progress in biotechnological techniques such as DNA extraction: thanks to work led by then GCP cassava comrade Martin Fregene (then with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, CIAT, and now with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center) and colleagues, focusing on the development of more reliable and robust simple sequence repeat (SSR) markers, Elizabeth was able to carry out genetic diversity diagnosis work on cassava, collecting germplasm from all over Ghana for the global GCP cassava reference set. Similar work was also conducted in Nigeria and Guatemala. So has this tremendous and tenacious teamwork proved strong enough to drag cassava out of the doldrums? Elizabeth certainly seems to think so: “Thanks to funders such as GCP, who recognised that we couldn’t afford to turn a blind eye to the plight of this struggling crop, cassava has been given a voice. Having worked together to understand the peculiarities of this crop, cassava is no longer just a poor man’s staple: beyond subsistence, it is becoming a crop of high starch quality, and of real use for industry, confectionary and even biofuels,” she enthuses.

Thankfully, it’s a most welcome change of tide that shows no sign of abating any time soon.  Human capacity, Elizabeth says, is going from strength to strength, with three GCP-funded Ghanaian postgraduate students advancing well, two of them working on PhDs in what would normally be considered, according to Elizabeth, a ‘no-go area’ of cassava research – that is, cassava drought tolerance and post-harvest physiological deterioration (PPD), as well as bio-fortification. Efforts by the CRI team have resulted in the release of some 14–15 new drought-tolerant and PPD-resistant varieties in Ghana to date; all are anticipated to have a long shelf-life, and other varieties are also in the pipeline. Biofortified seeds are in the making, with a view to soon mainstream biofortification in the team’s breeding activities. The biofortification work is in collaboration with a sister CGIAR Challenge Programme, HarvestPlus.

The impact of our GCP-supported research on cassava has been remarkable. Above all, it’s been the community spirit which has moved things forward so effectively; in this respect, I think researchers working on other crops might want to borrow a leaf from the cassava book!”

Molecular masterstrokes, a leaf to lend despite cold shoulder, and a ‘challenge crop’ befitting Challenge Programmes
Forthcoming plans for Elizabeth and her cassava companions in Ghana include a GCP Cassava Challenge Initiative project which will seek to unearth new marker populations and materials which are drought-tolerant and resistant to cassava mosaic virus and cassava bacterial blight. The team has successfully introgressed materials from CIAT into their landraces, and the next step will be to gauge how best the new genes will react to these traits of interest. In terms of people power, the CRI biotechnology laboratory built with GCP support – and now a regionally accredited ‘Centre of Excellence’ – is a hive of activity for local and international scientists alike, and is consequently bolstering cassava research efforts in the wider subregion. “The impact of our GCP-supported research on cassava has been remarkable. Above all, it’s been the community spirit which has moved things forward so effectively; in this respect, I think researchers working on other crops might want to borrow a leaf from the cassava book!” Elizabeth ventures.

Reflecting back on the conspicuous cocktail of constraints which mired the crop in the early days of her research career – challenges which often resulted in a cold shoulder from many of her research peers over the years – Elizabeth recalls affectionately: “At first, people didn’t want to work on cassava since it’s truly a challenge crop: the genetics of cassava are really tricky. Colleagues from around the globe often asked me: ‘Why not go for a smooth crop which is friendly and easy?’” Her commitment, however, has been unfaltering throughout: “I’ve stuck with cassava because that’s my destiny! And now I see SNPs being developed, as well as numerous other resources. Once you clean something up it becomes more attractive, and my thanks go out to all those who’ve remained dedicated and helped us to achieve this.”

Thus, dusted down and  ’marked-up’ with a molecular make-over well underway, all evidence now suggests that this once old-hat subsistence crop is en route to becoming the next season’s big research hit, with shiny new cassava varieties soon to be released at a field station near you! Go, Ghana, go!

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Feb 262014
 
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Something old, something new; Plenty borrowed, and just a bit of  blue…

Why did the Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP) come to be, and what’s the latest offer from the five-year-old Platform? The answers are in this tell-all post on the bright and the bleak in IBP – beauty spots, blues, warts and all! Having heard on data management, breeding, and putting IBP tools, tips and services into use, let’s now take a couple of steps back and appraise the big picture: the IBP concept itself, candidly retold by an IBP old hand, in a captivating chronicle capturing the highs and lows, the drama and the humdrum, and befittingly capping our current season of IBP stories. Do read on…

We want to put informatics tools in the hands of breeders, be they in the public or private sector including small- and medium-scale enterprises, because we know they can make a huge difference”

Graham McLaren

Graham McLaren

Curtain up on BMS version 2, and back to basics on why IBP
January 2014 was a momentous month for our Integrated Breeding Platform, marking the release of version 2 of the Breeding Management System (BMS). After the flurry and fanfare of this special event, we caught up with Graham McLaren (pictured), GCP’s Bioinformatics and Crop Information Leader, Chair of the IBP Workbench Implementation Team and a member of the IBP Development Team. Graham has been intimately involved in taking IBP from an idea in 2008‒2009 to its initial launch in late 2009.

But what’s the background to all this, and why the need for IBP? Graham fills us in, explaining that in the 1980s and 1990s, informatics was the major contributor to successful plant breeding in large companies like Pioneer and Monsanto. After that, molecular technologies became the main contributors. “But to advance with molecular technologies, you need to have the informatics systems in place,” he says. “One of the biggest constraints to the successful deployment of molecular technologies in public plant breeding, especially in the developing world, is a lack of access to informatics tools to track samples, manage breeding logistics and data, and analyse and support breeding decisions.”

This is why IBP was set up. “We want to put informatics tools in the hands of breeders, be they in the public or private sector including small- and medium-scale enterprises, because we know they can make a huge difference.”

…breeders will not only find… information, but also the tools, services and support to put this information into use, in the context of their local crop-breeding projects…  [the information breeders] have accumulated over the years is mostly held in their heads, in institutional repositories, or in books and published papers. There are few common places for them to share these riches and tap into those of others… IBP  provides one such place.”

Breeding rice with optimised phosphorus uptake in The Philippines. See post: http://bit.ly/NgIH9C

The script: common sense, and working wonders
Plant breeders throughout the developing world have a wealth of information on adapting crops to the challenges of their particular environments. They work wonders in their experimental fields to develop crops that help local farmers deal with pests, diseases and less-than-ideal conditions such as drought, floods and poor soils. But this valuable information they have accumulated over the years is mostly held in their heads, in institutional repositories, or in books and published papers. There are few common places for them to share these riches and tap into those of others. The Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP) provides one such place, where breeders will not only find this information, but also the tools, services and support to put this information into use, in the context of their local crop-breeding projects.

Action! Setting the stage for a forward spring, and taking a leap of faith
IBP tackles the information management issues that are at the heart of many breeding processes, goals, pursuits and problems. “Informatics problems are not crop-specific” Graham says. “What GCP is doing is to put in place a generic system for plant breeders to manage and share information. This means they can collaborate and make better decisions about strains of the crops they are breeding and that they use in their programmes. It’s setting the stage for a big leap forward in plant breeding in developing countries.”

The proposal for a crop information system applicable to a wide range of crops attracted the attention of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which provided core funding for IBP.

According to Graham, the initial five-year USD 12 million grant from the Foundation was “the biggest single investment in an informatics project in CGIAR. It was half of what was needed, and other funders joined in with the other half.” These are the European Commission and the UK’s Department for International Development.

It’s been harder than we imagined… we really needed to employ the strategies used to build aeroplanes! … some of our partners are good at solving research problems but not at developing informatics tools… Our partnership with the software company was pretty unusual…Usually, you draw up the specifications for what you want and the company comes back with the product, like giving a builder an architect’s plans and getting the keys when the building is completed. But it wasn’t like that at all…”

Collaborative construction and conundrum – going off the script, winging it and winning it
Graham describes the hurdles that the team had to overcome along the way. “It’s been harder than we imagined because of the number of partners to coordinate. It’s like building a complicated machine with many parts. The parts built by different people in different places all need to fit when they are put together. It’s so complex, we really needed to employ the strategies used to build aeroplanes!”

It’s been a matter of encouraging all those involved to do what they do best. “I’ve learnt that some of our partners are good at solving research problems but not at developing informatics tools. We were fortunate to find a private company partner to do the software engineering and to have the backing of the Gates Foundation to change our strategy along the way.”

Working with a private-sector company was a first on both sides. “Our partnership with the software company was pretty unusual,” Graham recalls. “Usually, you draw up the specifications for what you want and the company comes back with the product, like giving a builder an architect’s plans and getting the keys when the building is completed. But it wasn’t like that at all. We didn’t know exactly what we wanted in terms of the final system, learning and adapting as we went along. Fortunately, the company was flexible and worked with us step by step. We would describe to them what we wanted, they would go off and work something up, then they would come back and we would dissect it and then they would go away again and rework. This way, they produced the system we wanted. Involving a private company brought us very handsome returns for money: it meant the project could deliver on time, and on budget.”

Breeders in developing countries and small- and medium-sized companies are looking at it… a revenue stream could be secured in a win–win relationship with companies also working to develop agriculture in the developing world”

Act II: going global, and continuous improvement
Now that the alpha version of BMS has been launched, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is encouraging GCP to deploy the Platform more broadly. Graham explains, “Breeders in developing countries and small- and medium-sized companies are looking at it and, of course, they are coming up with ideas of their own. We’ve taken these on board in developing BMS version 2. In anticipation of yet more user feedback on version 2, we anticipate the third version will be released in June 2014.”

Electronic data collection for cassava breeding at Nigeria's National Root Crops Research Institute. GCP is promoting the use of digital tablets for data collection. See story: http://bit.ly/1fpeJON

Electronic data collection at Nigeria’s National Root Crops Research Institute. GCP is promoting the use of digital tablets for data collection. See story: http://bit.ly/1fpeJON

He continues: “Deployment will involve training people to use IBP, maintaining the system and developing new tools. We’re talking to the Gates Foundation, and others, about funding for IBP Phase II. While our primary objective is to make the Platform affordable – even free – for public-sector plant breeders in developing countries, we recognise that the system needs to be maintained, supported and upgraded over the years. The question is, will small- and medium-sized plant-breeding enterprises be willing to pay for the system so that some of this maintenance and support can be recovered and the system can become sustainable in the long run? In our GoToMarket Plan, the Marketing Director is canvassing a range of companies asking what services they need and how much they would pay for them. There is a strong need for such a system in this sector and it is clear that a revenue stream could be secured in a win–win relationship with companies also working to develop agriculture in the developing world.”

Graham is convinced that rolling out IBP will have a significant impact on plant breeding in developing countries. “Because IBP has a very wide application, it will speed up crop improvement in many parts of the world and in many different environments. What this means is that new crop varieties will be developed in a more rapid and therefore more efficient manner.”

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Feb 242014
 
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For this ‘IBP story-telling season’, our next stop is  very fittingly Africa, and her most populous nation, Nigeria. Travel with us!

Having already heard the Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP) story on data from Arllet (spiced with a brief detour through Asia’s sun-splashed rice paddies), and on IBP’s Breeding Management System from Mark (where we perched on a corner on his Toulouse workbench of tools and data), we next set out to get an external narrative on IBP, and specifically, one from an IBP user. Well, we got more than we had bargained for from our African safari

Yemi Olojede

Yemi Olojede

Yemi Olojede (pictured) is much more than a standard IBP user. An agronomist by training with a couple of decades-plus experience, he not only works closely with breeders and other crop scientitsts, but is also a research coordinator and data manager. As you can imagine, this made for a rich and insightful conversation, ferrying us far beyond the frontiers of Yemi’s base in Nigeria, to the rest of West Africa,  further out to Africa , and as far afield as Mexico, in his travels and travails with partners. We now bring to you some of this captivating conversation…

Yemi  has been working for the last 23 years (since 1991) at Nigeria’s National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) at Umudike in various capacities. After heading NRCRI’s Minor Root Crops Programme for 13 years, he was last year appointed Coordinator-in-Charge of the Cassava Research Programme.

But his involvement in agriculture goes much further back than NRCRI: Yemi says he “was born into farming”. His father, to whom he credits his love for agriculture, was a cocoa farmer. “I enjoy seeing things grow. When I see a field of crops …what a view!” Yemi declares.

Yemi is also the Crop Database Manager for NRCRI’s GCP-funded projects. He spent time at GCP headquarters in Mexico in February 2012 to sharpen his skills and provide user insights to the IBP team on the cassava database, on the then nascent Integrated Breeding Fieldbook, and on the tablet that GCP was considering for electronic field data collection and management.

To meet the farmers’ growing need for improved higher-yielding and stress-tolerant varieties, plant breeders are starting to incorporate molecular-breeding techniques to speed up conventional breeding.

Flashback to 2010: GCP was then piloting and testing small handheld devices for data collection. Field staff going through a training session for these under Yemi's watchful eye (right).

Flashback to 2010: GCP was then piloting and testing small handheld devices for data collection. Field staff going through a training session for these under Yemi’s watchful eye (right).

But for this to happen effectively, cassava breeders require consistent and precise means to collect and upload research and breeding data, and secure facilities to upload that data into the requisite databases and share it with their peers. Eighty percent of farmers in Africa have less than a hectare of land – that’s roughly two football fields! With so little space, they need high-value crops that consistently provide them with viable yields, particularly during drought. For this reason, an increasing number of Nigerian farmers are adopting cassava. It is not as profitable as, say, wheat, but it has the advantage of being less risky. The Nigerian government is encouraging this change and is implementing a Cassava Transformation Agenda, which will improve cassava markets and value chains locally and create a sustainable export market. All this is designed to encourage farmers to grow more cassava.

Enter GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP), which has been working closely with NRCRI and other national breeding programmes to develop the right informatic tools and support services for the job. The International Cassava Information System (ICASS), the Integrated Breeding Fieldbook and the tablet are all part of the solution, backed up by a variety of bioinformatic tools for data management, data analysis and breeding decision support that have been developed to meet the specific needs of the users.

I enjoy working with the team. They pay attention to what we as breeders want and are determined to resolve the issues we raise”

Fastfoward to 2012: Based on feedback, a larger electronic tablet was favoured over the smaller handheld device. Yemi (centre) takes field staff through the paces in tablet use.

Fastfoward to 2012: Based on feedback, a larger electronic tablet was favoured over the smaller handheld device. Yemi (centre) takes field staff through the paces in tablet use.

The database and IB Fieldbook
“When I received the tablet I was excited! I had heard so much about it but only contributed ideas for its use through Skype and email,” Yemi remembers, echoing a sentiment that is frequently expressed by many partners who have been introduced to the device. “I experimented with the Integrated Breeding Fieldbook software focusing on pedigree management, trait ontology management, template design ‒ testing how easy it was to input data into the program and database.”  Yemi noted a few problems with layout and data uploading and suggested a number of additional features. The IBP Team found these insights particularly useful and worked hard to implement them in time for the 2nd Scientific Conference of the Global Cassava Partnership for the 21st Century (GCP21 II), held in Kampala, Uganda, in June, 2012.

“I enjoy working with the team. They pay attention to what we as breeders want and are determined to resolve the issues we raise,” says Yemi. He believes the IB FieldBook and the tablet, on which it runs, will greatly benefit breeders all over the world, but particularly in Africa. “At the moment, our breeders and researchers have to write down their observations in a paper field book, take that book back to their computer, and enter the data into an Excel spreadsheet,” he notes. “We have to double-handle the data and this increases the possibility of mistakes, especially when we are transferring it to our computers. The IB Fieldbook will streamline this process, minimising the risk of making mistakes, as we enter our observations straight into the tablet, using specified terms and parameters, which will upload all the data to the shared central database when it’s connected to the internet.”

The whole room was wide-eyed and excited when they first saw the tablets”

Bringing the tablet to Africa
After his trip to Mexico, Yemi was concerned that some African breeders would be put off using the IB Fieldbook and accompanying electronic tablet because both require some experience with computers. “I found the tablet and the FieldBook quite easy to use because I’m relatively comfortable with computers,” says Yemi. “The program is very similar to MS-Excel, which many breeders are comfortable with, but I still thought it would be difficult to introduce it given that computer literacy across the continent is very uneven.”

Slim, portable and nearly invisible. A junior scientist at NRCRI Umudike tries out the tablet during the 2012 training session.

Slim, elegant, portable and nearly invisible is this versatile tool. A junior scientist at NRCRI Umudike tries out the tablet during the 2012 training session.

At the GCP21 II meeting in Uganda, Yemi helped the IBP team run IB Fieldbook workshops for plant breeders from developing countries, with an emphasis on data quality and sharing. “The whole room was wide-eyed and excited when they first saw the tablets. They initially had trouble using them and I thought it was going to be a very difficult workshop, but by the end they all felt confident enough to use them by themselves and were sad to have to give them back!”

They … go back to their research institutes and train their colleagues, who are more likely to listen and learn from them than from someone else.”

Providing extra support, cultivating trust
Yemi recounts that attendees were particularly pleased when they received a step-by-step ‘how-to’ manual to help them train other breeders in their institutes, with additional support to be provided by the IBP or Yemi’s team in Nigeria. “They were worried about post-training support,” says Yemi. “We told them if they had any challenges, they could call us and we would help them. I feel this extra support is a good thing for the future of this project, as it will build confidence in the people we teach. They can then go back to their research institutes and train their colleagues, who are more likely to listen and learn from them than from someone else.”

In developing nations, it is important that we share data, because we don’t all have the capacity to carry out molecular breeding at this time, and data sharing would facilitate the dissemination of the benefits to a wider group”

Sharing data to utilise molecular breeding
Yemi asserts that incorporating elements of molecular breeding has helped NRCRI a great deal. With conventional breeding, it would take six to 10 years to develop a variety before release, but with integrated breeding (conventional breeding that incorporates molecular breeding elements) it is possible to develop and release new varieties in three to four years ‒ half the time. Farmers would hence be getting new varieties of cassava that will yield 20‒30 percent more than the lines they are currently using in a much shorter time.

“In developing nations, it is important that we share data, because we don’t all have the capacity to carry out molecular breeding at this time, and data sharing would facilitate the dissemination of the benefits to a wider group,” says Yemi. “I enjoy helping people with this technology because I know how much it will make their job easier.”

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