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Jan 122015
James profile

James Gethi and one of the crops closest to his heart – maize. He also has a soft spot for hardy crop varieties that survive harsh and unforgiving drylands, such as Machakos, Kenya, where this June 2011 photo of him with drought-tolerant KARI maize was taken.

As we tell our closing stories on our Sunset Blog, in parallel, we’re also catching up on the backlog of stories still in our store from the time GCP was a going concern. Our next stop is Kenya, and the narrative below is from 2012, but don’t go away as it is an evergreen – a tale that can be told at any time, as it remains fresh as ever. At that time, and for the duration of the partnership with GCP, the Food Crops Research Institute of the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) was then known as the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), and we shall therefore stay with this previous name in the story. KARI was also the the name of the Kenyan institute at the time when James Gethi (pictured) left for a sabbatical at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT by its Spanish acronym). On to the story then, and please remember we’re travelling back in time to the year 2012. 

“I got into science by chance, for the fun of it,” muses James, maize breeder and former GCP scientist “With agricultural school promising a flight to overfly the country’s agricultural areas– this was an interesting prospect for a village guy. ‘This could be fun’, I thought!”

And it turned out to be a chance well worth taking.  His first step was getting the requisite education. And so he armed himself with a BSc in Agriculture from the University of Nairobi, Kenya, topped with a Master’s and PhD in Plant Breeding from the University of Alberta (Canada) and Cornell University (USA), respectively. Beyond academics, in the course of his crop science career, James has developed 13 crop varieties, that included maize and cassava, published papers in numerous peer-reviewed papers (including the 2003 prize for Best paper in the field of crop science in the prestigious Crop Science journal. And in leadership, James headed the national maize research programme in his native Kenya. These are just a few of the achievements James has garnered in the course of his career, traversing  and transcending not only the geographical frontiers initially in his sights, but also scientific ones, reaching professional heights that perhaps his younger self might never have dreamt possible.

As a Research Officer at KARI, a typical day sees James juggling his time between hands-on research (developing maize varieties resistant to drought, field and storage pests) and project administration, coordinating public–private partnerships and the maize research programme at both institutional and country level. What motivates the man shouldering much of the responsibility for the buoyancy of his nation’s staple crop? James explains, “Making a difference by providing solutions to farmers. That’s my passion and that’s what makes me get up in the morning and go to work. It’s hugely satisfying!”

Without GCP, I would not be where I am today as a scientist… [it] gave me a chance to work with the best of the best worldwide… You develop bonds and understanding that last well beyond the life of the projects.”

Rapid transitions: trainee to trainer to leader
It was this passion and unequivocal dedication to his vocation – not to mention a healthy dollop of talent – that GCP was quick to recognise back in 2004, when James first climbed aboard the GCP ship. Like a duck to water, he proceeded to engage in all manner of GCP projects and related activities, steadily climbing the ranks from project collaborator to co-Principal Investigator and, finally, Principal Investigator in his own right, leading a maize drought phenotyping project. Along the way, he also secured GCP Capacity building à la carte and Genotyping Support Service grants to further the maize research he and his team were conducting.


FLASHBACK: At a GCP drought phenotyping course in mid-2006 at Montpellier, France. (1) James (left) pays keen attention during one of the practical sessions. (2) In the spirit of “All work and no play, etc”, taking a break from the course to take in some of the sights with colleagues. Clearly, James, “the guy from the village” is anything but a dull boy! Next to James, second left, is BM Prasanna, currently leader of CIMMYT’s maize programme.


From trainee to trainer and knowledge-sharer: James (behind the camera) training KARI staff on drought phenotyping in June 2009 at Machakos, in Kenya’s drylands.

The GCP experience, James reveals, has been immensely rewarding: “Without GCP, I would not be where I am today as a scientist,” he asserts. And on the opportunity to work with a capable crew beyond national borders, as opposed to operating as a solo traveller, he says: “GCP gave me a chance to work with the best of the best worldwide, and has opened up new opportunities and avenues for collaboration between developing-country researchers and advanced research institutes, creating and cementing links that were not so concrete before. This has shown that we don’t have to compete with one another; we can work together as partners to derive mutual benefits, finding solutions to problems much faster than we would have done working alone and apart from each other.”

The links James has in mind are not only tangible but also sustainable: “You develop bonds and understanding that last well beyond the life of the projects,” James enthuses, citing additional professional engagements (the African Centre for Crop Improvement in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement, have both welcomed James and his team into their fold), as well as firm friendships with former GCP project colleagues as two key take-home benefits of his interaction with the Programme. These new personal and professional circles have fostered a happy home for dynamic debates on the latest news and views from the crop-science world, and the resultant healthy cross-fertilisation of ideas, James affirms.

Reflecting on what he describes as a ‘mentor’ role of GCP, and on the vital importance of capacity building in general, he continues: “By enhancing the ability of a scientist to collect germplasm, or to analyse that germplasm, or by providing training and tips on how to write a winning project proposal to get that far in the first place, you’re empowering scientists to make decisions on their own – decisions which make a difference in the lives of farmers. This is tremendous empowerment.”

Another potent tool, says James, is the software made available to him through GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP), which is a handy resource package to dip into for – among other things – analysing data and selecting the right varieties at the right time. The next step for IBP, he feels, should be scaling up and aiming for outreach to the wider scientific community, forecasting that such a step could bring nothing but success: “The impacts could be enormous!” he projects, with a palpable and infectious enthusiasm.

People… don’t eat publications, they eat food… I’m not belittling knowledge, but we can do both”

Fast but not loose on the R&D continuum: double agent about?
For James, outreach and impacts are not limited to science alone. In parallel with his activities in upstream genetic science, James’ efforts are equally devoted to the needs of his other client base-–the development community and farmers. For this group, James’ focus is on putting tangible products on the table that will translate into higher crop yields and incomes for farmers. Yet whilst products from any highly complex scientific research project worth its salt are typically late bloomers, often years in the making on a slow burner as demanded by the classic linear R&D view that research must always precede development, adaptation and final adoption, James has been quick to recognise that actors in the world of development and the vulnerable communities they serve do not necessarily have this luxury of time.

 August 2008: a huge handful, and more where that came from in Kwale, Kenya. This farmer's healthy harvest came from KARI hybrids.

August 2008: a huge handful, and more where that came from in Kwale, Kenya. This farmer’s healthy harvest came from KARI hybrids.

His solution for this challenge? “Sitting where I sit, I realised from very early on that if I followed the traditional linear scientific approach, my development clients would not take it kindly if I still had no products for them within the three-year lifespan of the project. The challenge then was to deliver results for farmers without compromising or jeopardising their integrity or the science behind the product,” he recalls. In the project he refers to – a GCP-funded project to combat drought and disease in maize and rice – James applied a novel double-pronged approach to get around this seeming conundrum of the need for sound science on the one hand, and the need for rapid results for development on the other hand. Essentially, he simultaneously walked on both tracks of the research–development continuum.

The project – led by Rebecca Nelson of Cornell University and with collaborators including James’ team at KARI (leading the maize component), the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), researchers in Asia, as well as other universities in USA – initially set out with the long-term goal of dissecting quantitative trait loci (QTLs) for rice and maize with a view to combating drought and disease in these crops. Once QTLs were dissected and gene crosses done, James and his team went about backcrossing these new lines to local parental lines, generating useful products in the short term. The results, particularly given the limited resources and time invested, have been impressive, with seven hybrid varieties developed for drylands and coastal regions having been released in Kenya by 2009, and commercialised from 2010.

James and his colleagues have applied the same innovative approach to other GCP projects, grappling to get a good grasp of the genetic basis of drought tolerance, whilst also generating intermediate products for practical use by farmers along the way. James believes this dual approach paves the way for a win-win situation: “People on the ground don’t eat publications, they eat food,” he says. “As we speak now, there are people out there who don’t know where their next meal will come from. I’m not belittling knowledge, but we can do both – boiled maize on the cob and publications on the boil. But let’s not stop at crop science  and knowledge dissemination – let’s move it to the next level, which means products,” he challenges, adding: “With GCP support, we were able do this, and reach our intended beneficiaries.”

It is perhaps this kind of vision and inherent instinct to play the long game that has taken James this far professionally, and that will no doubt also serve him well in the future.

As our conversation comes to a close, we ask James for a few pearls of wisdom for other young budding crop researchers eager to carve out an equally successful career path for themselves, James offers “Form positive links and collaborations with colleagues and peers. Never give up; never let challenges discourage you. Look for organisations where you can explore the limits of your imagination. Stay focused and aim high, and you’ll reach your goal.”

Upon completion of his ongoing sabbatical at CIMMYT in Zimbabwe, where he is currently working on seed systems, James plans to return to KARI, armed with fresh knowledge and ready to seize – with both hands – any promising collaborative opportunities that may come his way .

Certainly, prospects look plentiful for this ‘village lad’ in full flight, and who doesn’t look set to land any time soon!


In full flight – Montpellier, Brazil, Benoni, Bangkok, Bamako, Hyderabad… our boy voyaged from the village to Brazil and back, and far beyond that. Sporting the t-shirt from GCP’s Annual Research Meeting in Brazil in 2006, which James attended, he also attended the same meeting the following year, in Benoni, South Africa, in 2007, when this photo was taken. James is a regular at these meetings which are the pinnacle on  GCP’s calendar ( But he always sings for his supper and is practically part of the ‘kitchen crew’, but just as comfortable in high company. For example, he was one of the keynote speakers at the 2011 General Research Meeting (see below).




Sep 012014

Scouring the planet for breeding solutions

Bindiganavile Vivek

Bindiganavile Vivek

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drough in Asia_Vivek slide_GRM 2013_w

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

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

AMDROUT Meeting Penang Dec2010_w

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

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

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

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

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

 Show and tell: posting and sharing dividends

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

AMDROUT trainees at Cambridge_w

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



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


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

Increasing connections, and further into the future

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

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

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

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


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

Aug 312014

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

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

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

Rebecca Nelson

Rebecca Nelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masdiar Bustamam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Jul 242014

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


Claudia Guimarães


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



Jan 082015

Welcome to Brazil! Journey by road six hours northwest from Rio de Janeiro and you’ll arrive to Sete Lagoas,  a city whose name means ‘Seven Lagoons’ in Portuguese. Although cloistered in farmlands, the city is largely a commercial centre, but also the seat of Embrapa Milho e Sorgo, the nerve centre of EMBRAPA’s maize and sorghum research, and so could pass for the ‘sede’ (Portuguese for headquarters) of the these two cereals. EMBRAPA is the Portuguese acronym for Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária; the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. EMBRAPA is a GCP Consortium member, and contributed to the proposal that founded GCP.

Photo provided by J MagalhãesJurandir Magalhães (pictured), or Jura, as he likes to be referred to in informal settings such as our story today, is a cereal molecular geneticist who has been working at the Embrapa Milho e Sorgo centre since 2002. “The centre develops projects and research to produce, adapt and diffuse knowledge and technologies in maize and sorghum production by the efficient and rational use of natural resources,” Jura explains.

Such qualities are exactly what appeal to GCP, which has supported Jura as a Principal Investigator since 2004. Beyond science and on to governance and advisory issues, Jura is also EMBRAPA’s representative on the GCP Consortium Committee.

Home and away, on a journey of discovery in sorghum
Hailing from Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais State, where he was born, Jura attended the Federal University of Viçosa in his home state. Upon completing his Master’s degree at the university in 1995, he proceeded to USA’s Cornell University in 1998 for his PhD, under the watchful eye of Leon Kochian, another GCP Principal Investigator.

Sorghum rainbow_A Borrell

No, it’s not photo-shopped. This Australian sorghum-and-double-rainbows shot is from Supa Snappa, Andy Borrell, also a GCP sorghum Principal Investigator. See

At Cornell, Jura worked with Leon on identifying the genes associated with aluminium tolerance in sorghum. “At the time, genes associated with aluminium tolerance were known for cereals in the Triticeae family (wheat, barley and rye). But the same genes were not found in the Poaceae family (sorghum, rice and maize). This suggested that there were different aluminium-tolerance genes at play, so it was a really pioneering project.” Continuing with the Cornell team after his PhD, Jura worked with Leon to  map the location of a major aluminium-tolerance genetic ‘hotspot’ in sorghum, which the project team contracted to  AltSB  for short (aluminium-tolerance gene or locus in Sorghum bicolor). The mapping also marked the next chapter  of what was to be a long-term professional relationship for the pair.

Brazil beckons, joining GCP, leadership and enduring partnerships
But in between, Brazil broke in and beckoned her native son home. And so it was that in 2002, Jura packed his bags and accepted a position with EMBRAPA’s maize and sorghum research centre. And despite the geographical distance, it wasn’t long before he and Leon teamed up again. “When I left Cornell, Leon and I had finished mapping AltSB and we were keen to clone it so we could then develop aluminium-tolerant sorghum varieties more efficiently,” says Jura.

Two years after his return to Brazil,  Leon and Jura – in 2004 – submitted a joint proposal for a competitive grant for their first GCP project on aluminium tolerance in cereals, premised on AltSB. This project contributed to GCP’s foundation work on sorghum in this and other projects, the common goal being a bid to provide farmers in the developing world with sorghum crops that would be able to tolerate harsh soils. But the project contributed much more with a deep taproot in pre-history, as that which we today call ‘sorghum’, ‘maize’ and ‘rice’ were once one millions of ‘Jurassic’ years ago. More on that interesting side-story.

And since this first project, EMBRAPA and Cornell University have collaborated with several other research institutes around the world, particularly in Africa.

Left to right (foreground): Leon Kochian, Jurandir Magalhães (both EMBRAPA) and Sam Gudu (Moi University) examine crosses between Kenyan and Brazilian maize, at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), Kitale, in May 2010.

Left to right (foreground): Leon, Jura and Sam Gudu (Moi University) examine crosses between Kenyan and Brazilian maize, at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), Kitale, in May 2010.

Jura leads several EMBRAPA and GCP collaborative projects across three continents (Africa, Asia and the Americas). The partnerships forged by and through these projects go well beyond project life and frame, and will therefore continue after GCP’s sunset. Jura is both team leader and team player. And a couple of GCP projects in which Jura is part of the project team will run on in 2015 (see page 10), after GCP’s closure in December 2014.



Jan 072015

Beyond chickpeas to embrace beans, chickpeas, groundnuts and pigeonpeas

Paul_w2As a scientist who comes from the dessicated drylands of the unforgiving Kerio Valley, where severe drought can mean loss of life through loss of food and animals, what comes first is food security… I could start to give something back to the community… It’s been a dream finally coming true.” – Paul Kimurto, Senior Lecturer and Professor in Crop Physiology and Breeding, Egerton University, Kenya

As a son of peasant farmers growing up in a humble home in the Rift Valley of Kenya, agriculture was, for Paul Kimurto (pictured above), not merely a vocation but a way of life: “Coming from a pastoral community, I used to take care of the cattle and other animals for my father. In my community livestock is key, as is farming of food crops such as maize, beans and finger millet.”

Covering some six kilometres each day by foot to bolster this invaluable home education with rural school, an affiliation and ever-blossoming passion for agriculture soon led him to Kenya’s Egerton University.

There, Paul excelled throughout his undergraduate course in Agricultural Sciences, and was thus hand-picked by his professors to proceed to a Master’s degree in Crop Sciences at the self-same university, before going on to obtain a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) scholarship to undertake a ‘sandwich’ PhD in Plant Physiology and Crop Breeding at Egerton University and the Leibniz Institute for AgriculturalEngineering (ATB) in Berlin, Germany.

… what comes first is food security… offering alternative drought-tolerant crops… is a dream finally coming true!…  GCP turned out to be one of the best and biggest relationships and collaborations we’ve had.”

Local action, global interaction
With his freshly minted PhD, Paul returned to Egerton’s faculty staff and steadily climbed the ranks to his current position as Professor and Senior Lecturer in Crop Physiology and Breeding at Egerton’s Crop Sciences Department. Yet for Paul, motivating this professional ascent throughout has been one fundamental factor:  “As a scientist who comes from a dryland area of Kerio valley, where severe drought can mean loss of food and animals, what comes first is food security,” Paul explains. “Throughout the course of my time at Egerton, as I began to understand how to develop and evaluate core crop varieties, I could start to give something back to the community, by offering alternative drought-tolerant crops like chickpeas, pigeonpeas, groundnuts and finger millet that provide farmers and their families with food security. It’s been a dream finally coming true.”

And thus one of academia’s true young-guns was forged: with an insatiable thirst for moving his discipline forward by seeking out innovative solutions to real problems on the ground, Paul focused on casting his net wide and enhancing manpower through effective collaborations, having already established fruitful working relationships with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the (then) Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in earlier collaborative projects on dryland crops in Kenya. It was this strategy that paved the way towards teaming up with GCP, when, in 2008, Paul and his team were commissioned to lead the chickpea work in Kenya for the GCP Tropical Legumes I project (TLI), with local efforts being supported by colleagues at ICRISAT, and friends down the road at KARI undertaking the bean work of the project. Climbing aboard the GCP ship, Paul reveals, was a move worth making: “Our initial engagement with GCP started out as a small idea, but in fact, GCP turned out to be one of the best and biggest relationships and collaborations we’ve had.”

…GCP is people-oriented, and people-driven” 

Power to the people!
The success behind this happy marriage, Paul believes, is really quite simple: “The big difference with GCP is that it is people-oriented, and people-driven,” Paul observes, continuing: “GCP is building individuals: people with ideas become equipped to develop professionally.” Paul elaborates further: “I wasn’t very good at molecular breeding before, but now, my colleagues and I have been trained in molecular tools, genotyping, data management, and in the application of molecular tools in the improvement of chickpeas through GCP’s Integrated Breeding Multiyear Course. This has opened up opportunities for our local chickpea research community and beyond, which, without GCP’s support, would not have been possible for us as a developing-country institution.”

Inspecting maturity, Koibatek FTC, Bomet_R Mulwa_Sep'12_w

Inspecting pod maturity with farmers at Koibatek Farmers Training Centre in Eldama Ravine Division, Baringo County, Kenya, in September 2012. Paul is on the extreme right.

Passionate about his teaching and research work, it’s a journey of discovery Paul is excited to have shares with others: “My co-workers and PhD students have all benefitted. Technicians have been trained abroad. All my colleagues have a story to tell,” he says. And whilst these stories may range from examples of access to training, infrastructure or genomic resources, the common thread throughout is one of self-empowerment and the new-found ability to move forward as a team: “Thanks to our involvement with the GCP’s Genotyping Support Service, we now know how to send plant DNA to the some of the world’s best labs and to analyse the results, as well as to plan for the costs. With training in how to prepare the fields, and infrastructure such as irrigation systems and resources such as tablets, which help us to take data in the field more precisely, we are now generating accurate research results leading to high-quality data.”

The links we’ve established have been tremendous, and we think many of them should be long-lasting too: even without GCP

Teamwork, international connections and science with a strong sense of mission
Teaming up with other like-minded colleagues from crème de la crème institutions worldwide has also been vital, he explains: “The links we’ve established have been tremendous, and we think many of them should be long-lasting too: even without GCP, we should be able to sustain collaboration with KBioscience [now LGC Genomics] or ICRISAT for example, for genotyping or analysing our data.” He holds similar views towards GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP): “IBP is one of the ideas which we think, even after GCP’s exit in December 2014, will continue to support our breeding programmes. My colleagues and I consult IBP regularly for a range of aspects, from markers to protocols to germplasm and the helpdesk, as well as for contacts and content available via the IBP Communities of Practice.” Paul’s colleagues are Richard Mulwa, Alice Kosgei, Serah Songok, Moses Oyier, Paul Korir, Bernard Towett, Nancy Njogu and Lilian Samoei. Paul continues: “We’ve also been encouraging our regional partners to register on IBP – I believe colleagues across Eastern and Central Africa could benefit from this one-stop shop.”

Yet whilst talking animatedly about the greater sophistication and accuracy in his work granted as a result of new infrastructure and the wealth of molecular tools and techniques now available to him and his team, at no point do Paul’s attentions stray from the all-important bigger picture of food security and sustainable livelihoods for his local community: “When we started in 2008, chickpeas were known as a minor crop, with little economic value, and in the unfavoured cluster termed ‘orphan crops’ in research. Since intensifying our work on the crop through TLI, we have gradually seen chickpeas become, thanks to their relative resilience against drought, an important rotational crop after maize and wheat during the short rains in dry highlands of Rift valley and also in the harsh environments of the Kerio Valley and swathes of Eastern Kenya.”

This GCP-funded weather station is at Koibatek Farmers Training Centre, Longisa Division, Bomet County.

This GCP-funded weather station is at Koibatek Farmers Training Centre.

Having such a back-up in place can prove a vital lifeline to farmers, Paul explains, particularly during moments of crisis, citing the 2011–2012 outbreak of the maize lethal necrosis (MLN) disease which wiped out all the maize throughout Kenya’s  Bomet County, where Paul, Richard, Bernard and their team had been working on the chickpea reference set. Those farmers who had planted chickpeas – Paul recalls Toroto and Absalom as two such fortunate souls – were food-secure. Moreover, GCP support for infrastructure such as a weather station have helped farmers in Koibatek County to predict weather patterns and anticipate rainfall, whilst an irrigation system in the area is being used by the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture to develop improved seed varieties and pasture for farmers.

The science behind the scenes and the resultant products are of course not to be underestimated: in collaboration with ICRISAT, Paul and his team released four drought-resistant chickpea varieties in Kenya in 2012, with the self-same collaboration leading to the integration of at least four varieties of the crop using marker-assisted backcrossing, one of which is in the final stages and soon to be released for field testing. With GCP having contributed to the recent sequencing of the chickpea genome, Paul and his colleagues are now looking to up their game by possibly moving into work on biotic stresses in the crop such as diseases, an ambitious step which Paul feels confident can be realised through effective collaboration, with potential contenders for the mission including ICRISAT (for molecular markers), Ethiopia and Spain (for germplasm) and researchers at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) for germplasm. Paul first established contact with all of these partners during GCP meetings.

By coming together, pooling skills from biotechnology, agronomy, breeding, statistics and other disciplines, we are stronger as a unit and better equipped to offer solutions to African agriculture and to the current challenges we face.”

Links that flower, a roving eye, and the heat is on!
In the meantime, the fruits of other links established since joining the GCP family are already starting to blossom. For example, TLI products such as certified seeds of chickpea varieties being released in Kenya – and in particular the yet-to-be-released marker-assisted breeding chickpea lines which are currently under evaluation – caught the eye of George Birigwa, Senior Programme Officer at the Program for Africa’s Seed Systems (PASS) initiative of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which is now supporting the work being undertaken by Paul and his team through the Egerton Seed Unit and Variety Development Centre (of which Paul is currently Director) at the Agro-Based Science Park.

Yet whilst Paul’s love affair with chickpeas has evidently been going from strength to strength, he has also enjoyed a healthy courtship with research in other legumes: by engaging in a Pan-African Bean Research Alliance (PABRA) bean project coordinated by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Paul and his team were able to release and commercialise three bean varieties which are currently in farmers’ fields in Kenya.


Paul (left) in the field. The crop is chickpeas of course!

With so many pots on the boil, the heat is certainly on in Paul’s research kitchen, yet he continues to navigate such daily challenges with characteristic aplomb. As a proven leader of change in his community and a ‘ can-do, make-it-happen’ kind of guy, he is driving research forward to ensure that both his school and discipline remain fresh and relevant – and he’s taking his colleagues, students and local community along with him every step of  the way.

Indeed, rallying the troops for the greater good is an achievement he values dearly: “By coming together, pooling skills from biotechnology, agronomy, breeding, statistics and other disciplines, we are stronger as a unit and better equipped to offer solutions to African agriculture and to the current challenges we face,” he affirms. This is a crusade he has no plans to abandon any time soon, as revealed when quizzed on his future aspirations and career plans: “My aim is to continue nurturing my current achievements, and to work harder to improve my abilities and provide opportunities for my institution, colleagues, students, friends and people within the region.”

With the chickpea research community thriving, resulting in concrete food-security alternatives, we raise a toast to Paul Kimurto and his chickpea champions!



Dec 312014

sunset-taskforce-130Our sunset is finally here: the Generation Challenge Programme officially closes today, Wednesday the 31st of December 2014. It is with great sadness, but with even more joy and pride, that we say our farewells, look back on all that GCP has achieved in its decade of existence, and look forward to GCP’s legacy to the researchers, farmers and hungry consumers of the future.

As GCP reaches its end, we would very much like to thank all those who have been part of the GCP journey, whether as active participants or simply cheering us on. This card is for you, with our heartfelt gratitude (and please keep reading, as we have more to say below!).

thank you from gcp

The GCP family is both mighty and numerous, and we cannot hope to name all those whose invaluable contributions have helped make GCP what it is.

First and foremost, we thank the Product Delivery Coordinators past and present who have provided essential leadership and vision to each of our Research Initiatives, and the Principal Investigators who have shepherded each of GCP’s projects – sometimes through green pastures and sometimes along stony paths – to their triumphant conclusions. Our sincere thanks also go to all the hundreds of researchers who have worked with them, and whose efforts have been instrumental in the results and impacts that GCP has achieved.

A body is nothing without its head, and so we offer our profound thanks to the members of our Executive Board, and its predecessor the Programme Steering Committee. Defying anatomy, they have furnished GCP with not only brains but also a heart and firm hands to steer the GCP ship deftly on its course. We further thank all the members of the Consortium Committee, the Intellectual Property Advisory Committee, the now defunct Review and Advisory Panel and Programme Advisory Committee, and the Integrated Breeding Platform’s Scientific and Management Advisory Committee, for their indispensable advice and guidance. (See our current governance and advisory bodies)

We are deeply grateful to all of our funders, whose steadfast faith in GCP enabled this remarkable decade of collaboration and discovery. And last but not least, we thank all of GCP’s staff, both past and present, as well as consultants and others who have worked with us, for their incredible hard work, loyalty and habitual miracle-working.

We would also like to offer a special and thankful mention to our esteemed 3,000-plus readers of GCP News who have faithfully stayed with us through the years, as well as our friends, fans and followers on all our social-media accounts (see them all along the top and bottom of our website).

Together, we have created something remarkable (as our external reviews attest), and none of us will continue in our lives untouched by the GCP spirit. To all those listed above, and to all our other friends who have collaborated, contributed and cheered us on our way – THANK YOU!


Just as it would be impossible to name each and every person who has been part of GCP, we also could not possibly list all the ways in which GCP will live on. GCP’s legacy takes many forms: new crop varieties for farmers, scientific knowledge, relationships between researchers, both young and senior scientists trained in the latest tools and techniques, new ways of working together… we could go on and on!

However, there are a few things we would particularly like to mention. The Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP) is one of GCP’s most important offspring, and in many ways its heir. IBP is a one-stop shop for both conventional and molecular breeding activities, making the latest tools and knowledge available to breeders across the world. Its Breeding Management System (BMS) offers a suite of interconnected software designed to help breeders manage their day-to-day work at all stages of the routine breeding process. IBP has also taken over the hosting of certain GCP activities, such as the crop-specific communities of practice fostered by GCP, so that these will continue to go from strength to strength.

Many other GCP projects are also continuing in new phases and forms – their success at securing funding from new sources a validation of their accomplishments so far. For example, Tropical Legumes I and II projects, respectively led by GCP and ICRISAT, will be merging into a new incarnation, Tropical Legumes III, to be led by ICRISAT. In general, the work in GCP’s key Phase II crops – cassava, legumes (beans, chickpeas, cowpeas and groundnuts), maize, rice, sorghum and wheat – will continue under the umbrellas of the CGIAR Research Programmes, as we had hoped and envisaged in our 2010 Transition Strategy.

Meanwhile, you can expect a few final news posts from us in the New Year, as we wrap up the Programme and its communications. It’s our pleasure to announce that, thanks to your demonstrated interest, the GCP website will continue to be online (albeit as an archive), so you will still be able to call in for any GCP information you need – or purely for nostalgia. And we will continue to publish our collection of closing stories on our Sunset Blog, so keep visiting for upbeat and comprehensive journeys through GCP’s achievements, including how GCP has done things differently, our impacts, what we have learnt, and how these will carry on into the future.

Finally, we have one more special thank you to give: to our GCP artists Durga Bernhard and Rhoda Okono, to CIMMYT designers Miguel Mellado, Marcelo Ortiz and Eliot Sánchez for incorporating their beautiful artworks into so many gorgeous designs over the years, and to our web developer and designer Brandon Tooke for stunning concepts. Without Rhoda and Durga to give us our signature look, GCP would hardly be so colourful or distinctive. If you enjoyed the glimpses of their paintings in the thank you card above, why not sample the full works in our online galleries? The first exhibit is fittingly a ‘decoding’ of the lovely logo that Marcelo designed for us in 2004, and the sunset twist Brandon has added to it since (see below).

On that joyful artistic note, from us here at GCP, fare thee well, thank you, and long live the GCP spirit!


P.S. Hold on! We’re not done just yet with our roll of honour. Please step forward, Vincent Vadez, groundnut researcher, for giving substance, form and name to that which most of us felt and loved, but could not put a name to – the GCP spirit. Here’s what Vincent said in a survey response in September 2011: “I feel that GCP is not a consortium, or an institution. It is a spirit.” And thus, a handy and legendary moniker was born, that served us well in the years that followed, and that will hopefully live on into the future. Thank you Vincent for that down-to-earth gem of groundtruth from our main groundnut researcher!

 Posted by at 4:12 pm
Dec 042014

By Eloise Phipps

Think of something acid.

What came to mind… vinegar? Lemon juice? An acid remark? Chances are that you did not think of soil – the humble sods and clods we rely on to produce our food – unless, perhaps, you grow or breed crops.

It is a cruel and surprising fact that acid soils cover almost half the land that the world uses to grow food. They can be a natural result of rainfall and soil type, but are also made worse by overuse of nitrogen fertilisers. The negative impact of acid soils on annual global harvests is second only to that of drought.

We’re getting down to earth in celebration of World Soil Day, the 5th of December – and looking forward to 2015, the International Year of Soils – as we get our teeth into this Diplodocus-sized problem, and examine how research into genes shared between different species is helping plant breeders provide farmers with crops that thrive even as the pH drops.

More than half of the world’s potential crop-growing land is highly acidic. Map courtesy of Leon Kochian.

More than half of the world’s potential crop-growing land is highly acidic. Map courtesy of Leon Kochian.

Cretaceous crop split leaves common heritage – helping plants pass the acid test when soil dosages get dramatic

Did Triceratops, just like us, enjoy its daily morning breakfast cereal?

Did Triceratops, just like us, enjoy its daily morning breakfast cereal?

The cereal crops that we rely on for our staple foods are relative newcomers in evolutionary terms – just like humans ourselves. The species that are now maize, rice and sorghum all belong to the Poaceae family, or true grasses. They separated out and began to take their own evolutionary pathways roughly 65 million years ago – around the time the dinosaurs were going extinct. Before this, they had a single common ancestor, getting munched on by hungry Triceratops.

Because of this family relationship, maize, rice and sorghum still have many similar genes in common, often carrying out the same or similar functions in the different crops. And some of these functions can help plants do well when faced with the acid test.

The trouble with acid soils is not so much the pH itself, but the way it affects the availability of important nutrients. As acidity increases, aluminium becomes more soluble, giving plants an overdose that causes aluminium toxicity. One of the symptoms is stunted root growth – making it even harder for plants to reach other nutrients. Meanwhile, nutrients such as phosphorus become less available, stuck in forms that plants can’t absorb, making phosphorus deficiency another huge issue.

The consequences of subpar soils are far-reaching. A new report from the Montpellier Panel, ‘No Ordinary Matter: Conserving, Restoring and Enhancing Africa’s Soils’, finds that soil degradation affects two-thirds of arable land in Africa, and that without action it is likely to lock the continent into cycles of food insecurity for generations to come, and hamper both agricultural and economic development. Widespread soil acidity and its effect on nutrient availability are a key piece of the jigsaw; as the report observes, “In the more humid lowland areas [of Africa], soils are typically highly weathered, acidic and nutrient deficient.”

A Kenyan farmer prepares her maize plot for planting. Acid soils cover almost 90 percent of Kenya’s maize-growing area, and can more than halve yields.

A Kenyan farmer prepares her maize plot for planting. Acid soils cover almost 90 percent of Kenya’s maize-growing area, and can more than halve yields.

Collaboration and gene comparison for crops that thrive when pH dives

Fortunately, our scientists are no dinosaurs. Since 2004, crop researchers and plant breeders across the world – collaborating in several GCP projects within the Comparative Genomics Research Initiative – have been using genetic knowledge at the cutting edge of science to develop local varieties of maize, rice and sorghum which can withstand acid soils’ topsy-turvy nutrient levels. Explore our comparative genomics-themed blogposts to meet our heroes Claudia, Eva, Jura, Leon, Matthias, Rajeev, Sam, and others.

Left to right (foreground): Leon Kochian, Jurandir Magalhães (both EMBRAPA) and Sam Gudu (Moi University) examine crosses between Kenyan and Brazilian maize, at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), Kitale, in May 2010.

Left to right (foreground): Leon Kochian, Jurandir Magalhães (both EMBRAPA) and Sam Gudu (Moi University) examine crosses between Kenyan and Brazilian maize, at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), Kitale, in May 2010.

What is the advantage for breeders of knowing about a gene like PSTOL1 (in the locus Pup1), which helps rice do well under low-phosphorus conditions by encouraging it to grow longer roots? Simple. Unlike the scientists in Jurassic Park, our breeders don’t need to resurrect long-dead species to get their kicks (and fortunately, they are at lower risk of being eaten by their work!). The crops they are interested already have all kinds of useful genes hidden within them, but, as with all living things, each species is tremendously varied and diverse.

This is where genomics comes in. Instead of growing many thousands of seeds to see which plants thrive, breeders can use genetic markers to look inside the seeds to see which ones have, say, Pup1. Then they only need to grow those seeds, in order to cross-pollinate them with plants with other useful traits, making the breeding process much faster and more efficient.

Screening for phosphorus-efficient rice, able to make the best of low levels of available phosphorus, on an International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) experimental plot in the Philippines.

Screening for phosphorus-efficient rice, able to make the best of low levels of available phosphorus, on an International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) experimental plot in the Philippines. Some types of rice have visibly done much better than others.

Women farmers in India bring home their sorghum harvest.

Women farmers in India bring home their sorghum harvest.

And what makes the Comparative Genomics Research Initiative even more powerful is that it looks across related crops. Once researchers have found an acid-beating gene in one crop, they can look for similar genes in the others – turning knowledge of a single gene into multi-impact dino-mite. For example, the discovery of the SbMATE gene, behind aluminium tolerance in sorghum, spurred researchers to seek and find a similar gene in maize – which they named ZmMATE. This knowledge is now being used to breed aluminium-tolerant varieties of both sorghum and maize for Africa – and is being applied to rice too.

Maize trials in the field at our partners EMBRAPA, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. The maize plants on the left are aluminium-tolerant while those on the right are not.

Maize trials in the field at our partners EMBRAPA, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. The maize plants on the left are aluminium-tolerant while those on the right are not.

There are many more examples of the power of comparative genomics, but the real proof will be soon to come in farmers’ fields as these new, anti-acid varieties are tested and released. The world’s poorest farmers generally cannot afford other approaches to dealing with soil acidity, such as treating soil with lime or applying extra phosphorus to their fields, so the comparative approach to cousin crops promises to be a king (or should that be Tyrannosaurus rex?) among soil solutions.

A boy rides his bicycle next to a rice field in the Philippines. With acid soils affecting half the world’s arable fields, acid-beating crop varieties will help farmers feed their families – and the world – into the future.

A boy rides his bicycle next to a rice field in the Philippines. With acid soils affecting half the world’s arable fields, acid-beating crop varieties will help farmers feed their families – and the world – into the future.


Nov 132014

Long legs: our longest running capacity-building marathon’s end is in sight and a new breed of breeders is ready and set to go

Photo: IAMZAs we ‘speak’, the Integrated Breeding Multiyear Course (IB–MYC) is in its final session, reaching its close after three intensive years. This last gathering runs from 3rd to 14th November 2014, and as always is hosted by our partners IAMZ–CIHEAM (the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Zaragoza, Spain). IB–MYC is unusual in its approach, but by taking a risk and investing in long-term in-depth training, GCP has shown that IB–MYC is a powerful model for capacity building with profound impact. Congratulations to our marathon runners as they approach the finish line… and all the best for an ‘integrated breeding’ future!

Breeders develop new varieties of crop through several methods. IBP has developed new varieties of breeders through the IB-MYC programme.”
— Johnson Adedayo Adetumbi: IB–MYC participant, research fellow at the Institute of Agricultural Research & Training (IAR&T), Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria, and breeder working on cowpeas, kenaf, maize and soya beans

IB–MYC: integrated, intensive, incomparable

IB–MYC differed from most other courses in two important ways, both reflected in its name: its ‘integrated breeding’ curriculum and its ‘multiyear’ timescale.  Implemented by GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP), the course aimed to empower breeders in developing countries to adopt molecular-breeding techniques. The ‘integrated’ approach to making this happen meant equipping students not only with the latest knowhow on molecular breeding itself, but also hands-on training in and effective tools for data management and analysis.

Course participant Samuel Adelowo Olakojo, Head of the Cereals Improvement Programme at IAR&T and maize breeder, is an enthusiast of IBP’s Breeding Management System (BMS). “My perception about data management is that it helps the breeder to plan their work very easily without stress. The time you take in thinking how to fashion out the design of the trials – you can actually get that done very quickly, very precisely,” he says. “Secondly… after you have produced your output, with minimal editing you can transfer your data to the preparation platform for publishing it. You don’t have to sit down writing everything again,” he adds. “The presentation that comes out of it now seems more graphical. And when you present reports in a graphical, pictorial form… people are enlightened, quickly.”

Since IB–MYC began in August 2012, the participants have each received two weeks of intensive face-to-face training per year. The participants were divided between three annual training sessions, broadly reflecting the three target regions for the course of Eastern and Southern Africa, West and Central Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. In between these sessions they were expected to work on assignments and project, with ongoing in-depth support including online resources from IBP. While well-supported, it was a demanding course, with students expected to pass each year and complete their assignments as a precondition to proceeding to the next year.

More than forty participants came together in November 2014 for the final IB–MYC training session, hosted by IAMZ. For more photos, see the IAMZ Facebook page.

More than forty participants came together in November 2014 for the final IB–MYC training session, hosted by IAMZ. For more photos, see the IAMZ Facebook page.

Taking the slow train to knowledge that sticks

Just as for the participants, this three-year course was also a major commitment for GCP, and – being unlike anything that had gone before – a risky investment of funds and efforts. However, this long-distance marathon has had some special advantages over the quick sprints of more conventional training courses, whose length is normally measured in weeks.

Rather than simply imparting knowledge that is forgotten as quickly as it is learnt, the practical focus, ongoing support and extended time-frame of IB–MYC ensured that participants were able to test and see the value of what they were learning within their own breeding activities, leading them to adopt useful technologies, tools and practices as an integral part of their work – and, it is hoped, becoming advocates, trainers and mentors themselves. Furthermore, as trainees have got to know each other and build relationships over the years, they have woven true communities of practice, springboards for sharing information and working together into the future.

Of course, not everyone has made it to the finish line. A few participants have dropped out over the years as they have changed jobs and directions, and some have even flunked the course. But the great majority have stayed the distance, and with both trainers and trainees convinced of IB–MYC’s value.

Seeds for the future in IB–MYC’s IAMZ roots

Not least of the relationships that have flourished during the course is GCP’s partnership with IAMZ, which also contains the seeds of one of the ways IB–MYC will live on into the future, after GCP’s planned close in December 2014. “We are working with IAMZ to continue that collaboration through IBP,” says Ndeye Ndack Diop, GCP’s Capacity Building Leader. “IAMZ has decided to include the BMS within… the short training course they provide, and that is of course a big endorsement for us that we appreciate. But beyond that, right now Ignacio [Romagosa], the Director of IAMZ, is working towards developing one project with different partners at the European level, where IBP also will be taking part.” This will use both the training material that IBP has developed in the course of these three years, and also the BMS. Says Ndeye Ndack: “the programme that he’s thinking of will be targeting breeders, in which case we believe BMS will be a good tool for them.”

Watch IAMZ’ interview with Ndeye Ndack below (or on YouTube) for more, including GCP’s approach to capacity building, how the GCP-IAMZ relationship began, and the stellar support that IAMZ has provided.

So even as we come to the finish line of this first IB–MYC marathon with the final training session, many more races are yet to be run and many new pathways are opening up for Johnson’s “new varieties of breeders” – and perhaps a new variety of trainers too. We at GCP would like to take this opportunity to give our special thanks to our friends at IAMZ–CIHEAM, and to thank and congratulate all IB–MYC participants and trainers for their commitment, hard work and fantastic achievements.


Oct 242014

OAweek2014By Eloise Phipps

Imagine the scene: it is the dead of night, and you are engaged on a dangerous mission. You are tense, alert for any noise. You must complete your task without being seen, or risk the shame and humiliation of failure… but it is not a pleasant undertaking!

Your mission? A critical matter of honour. To dispose of your family’s cassava peelings – not with the rest of your household waste, but smuggled into the murky depths of the pit latrine. Why?

“The stigma about cassava is mostly among the Kikuyu people of central Kenya,” explains Henry Ngugi, Kenyan scientist and former Maize Pathologist for Latin America at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). “Traditionally, the Kikuyu are very proud, and self-sufficiency in basic needs such as food is an important factor in this. That is, you cannot be proud if you cannot feed yourself and your family. Now, the other part of the equation regarding cassava is that, traditionally, cassava was eaten during seasons of severe food shortages. It is a hardy and drought-tolerant crop so it would be available when the ‘good food’ was not. This also meant that it was associated with hunger and poverty – inability to feed oneself.”

“Another factor that may have played a role in the way the Kikuyu view cassava is that some of the traditional cultivars produced high levels of cyanide and were toxic [if not properly cooked], so as a crop it was not very highly regarded to start with. Improved cultivars have been bred to remove this problem. But because of these issues, many people would not want their neighbours to know they were so hungry they had to rely on cassava, and would go to great lengths to conceal any evidence!”

The story is not the same everywhere: graceful and strong, this farmer tends her field of cassava, in the village of Tiniu, near Mwanza, northern Tanzania.

Opening up for Open Access Week

This year, 20–26 October is Open Access Week, a global event celebrating, promoting and sharing ideas on open access – that is, making research results, including both publications and data, freely and publicly available for anyone to read, use and build upon. Even more exciting for us, this year’s theme is ‘Generation Open’, reflecting the importance of students and researchers as advocates for open access – a call that falls on fertile ground at the Generation Challenge Programme  (video below courtesy of UCMerced on YouTube).

We at GCP have been reflecting this week on different virtues of openness and transparency, and the perils of shame and secrecy. But before we go on, we’re sticking with cassava (carrying over from World Food Week!) but crossing the globe to China to celebrate the latest open-access publication to join the GCP parade. ‘Cassava genome from a wild ancestor to cultivated varieties’ by Wang et al is still practically a newborn, published on the 10th of October 2014.

The article presents draft genome sequences of a wild ancestor and a domesticated variety of cassava, with additional comparative analyses with other lines. It shows, for example, that genes involved in starch accumulation have been positively selected in cultivated cassava, and those involved in cyanogenic (ie, cyanide-producing) glucoside formation have been negatively selected. The authors hope that their results will contribute to better understanding of cassava biology, and provide a platform for marker-assisted breeding of better cassava varieties for farmers.

The research was carried out by a truly international team, led by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Tropical Agriculture Sciences (CATAS) and Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). Authors Wenquan Wang of CATAS and Bin Liu of CAS are delighted that their publication will be freely available, particularly in a journal with the prestige and high impact of the Nature family. As they observe, the open access to the paper will spread their experience and knowledge quickly to every corner of China and of the world where people have internet connections.

The work incorporated and partially built upon previous work mapping the cassava genome, which was funded by GCP in our project on Development of genomic resources for molecular breeding of drought tolerance in cassava (G3007.03), led by Pablo Rabinowicz, then with the University of Maryland, USA. This provides a perfect example of the kind of constructive collaboration and continuation that open access and sharing of research results can facilitate: by building on what has already been done, rather than re-inventing the wheel or working in isolation, we share, disseminate and amplify knowledge more rapidly and efficiently, with win–win outcomes for all involved.

Cassava farmers in Vietnam.

One thing that makes the latest research even more special is that it was published in Nature Communications, which marked Open Access Week by going 100 percent open access from the 20th of October, making it an open-access flagship within the Nature Publishing Group – a clear indicator of the ever-increasing demand for and credibility of open-access publishing. We congratulate all of our open-access authors for making their work publicly available, and Nature Communications for its bold decision!

A matter of perspective: turning shame to pride and fears to opportunities

No shame here: a little girl clutches a cassava root in Kenya.

Of course, human beings worrying about their social status is old as humanity itself and nothing new. Food has never been an exception as an indicator. Back in mediaeval Europe, food was a hugely important status symbol: the poor ate barley, oats and rye, while only the rich enjoyed expensive and prestigious wheat. Although our ideas about what is luxurious have changed – for example, sugar was considered a spice thanks to its high cost – rare imported foods were something to boast about just as they might be today.

But why are we ashamed of eating the ‘wrong foods’ – like cassava – when we could take pride in successfully feeding our families? Many of the things we tend to try to hide are really nothing to be ashamed of, and a simple change in perspective can turn what at first seem like weaknesses into sources of pride (and there are two sides to the cassava saga, as we shall see later).

Throughout its existence, GCP has been characterised by its openness and transparency. We have worked hard to be honest about our mistakes as well as our successes, so that both we and others can learn from them. The rewards of this clear-eyed approach are clearly noted in our Final External Review: “GCP has taken an open and pro-active attitude towards external reviews – commissioning their own independent reviews (the case of the current one) as well as welcoming a number of donor reviews. There have been clear benefits, such as the major governance and research reforms that followed the EPMR [External Programme and Management Review] and EC [European Commission] Reviews of 2008. These changes sharply increased the efficiency of GCP in delivering benefits to the poor.”

Transparent decision-making processes for determining choices of methods have also improved the quality of our science, while open, mutually respectful relationships – including open data-sharing – have underpinned our rich network of partnerships.

One aspect of this open approach is, of course, our commitment to open access. All of our own publications are released under Creative Commons licences, and we encourage all GCP grant recipients to do the same, or to pursue other open-access options. When exploring our research publications you will note that many are directly available to download. Our website will act as an archive for the future, ensuring that GCP publications remain online in one place after GCP’s closure in December this year. See our Global Access Policy and our policy on data-sharing.

“Open access journals are just terrific,” says Jean-Marcel Ribault, Director of GCP. “It’s great to enable access to publications, and it’s important to promote sharing of data and open up analysis too. The next big challenge is data management, and assuring the quality of that data. At the end of the day, the quality of the information that we share with others is fundamental.”

Proud in pink and polka dots: a farmer shows off a healthy cassava leaf in a plantation in Kampong Cham, Cambodia.

That’s a challenge that many other organisations are also grappling with. Richard Fulss, Head of Knowledge Management at our host CIMMYT is currently working on standards and approaches for the quality and structure of data, with the aim of implementing open access to all data within five years, meeting guidelines being put in place across CGIAR. “The issues to resolve are threefold,” he explains. “You have a licence issue, a technology issue – including building the right platform – and a cultural issue, where you need to build a culture of knowledge sharing and make open access publishing the norm rather than the exception.”

Our partners at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) already have a strong open-access policy, and are debunking some cherished open-access myths.

It’s good to talk: saying no to secrecy

Back to cassava, and of course not everyone feels the same way about the same crop, as there are many sides to any story. In China, demand for cassava is soaring – for food, for animal feed and most of all as a raw material for starch and biofuel production – making breeding of resilient, productive cassava varieties even more important. Even within Kenya, there are those who are quicker to see the crop’s virtues. The Luhya people of western Kenya often mix cassava with finger millet or sorghum to make flour for ugali (a stiff porridge or dough eaten as a staple food in vast swathes of Eastern and Southern Africa). As Henry explains “one reason was that such ugali ‘stayed longer in the stomach’ in literal translation from local parlance meaning it kept you full for longer – which is scientifically sound because cassava has a crude starch that takes longer to digest, and lots of fibre!”

Meanwhile, watch the delightful Chiedozie Egesi, Nigerian plant breeder and molecular geneticist, in the video below to hear all about the high potential of cassava, both as a food in itself and as a raw material to make flour and other products – something some farmers have already spotted. “Cassava can really sustain a nation… we’ve seen that it can,” he says. “You have in Nigeria now some of the Zimbabwean farmers who left Zimbabwe, got to Nigeria, and they changed from corn [maize] to cassava, because they see the potential that it has.”

The power of openness is already showing itself in the case of cassava, as well as other root, tuber and banana crops. Check out RTBMaps, an online atlas developed by the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), using ‘scientific crowdsourcing’ to combine data on a wide range of variables, shared by many researchers, in a single map. Putting all that information together can help people make better decisions, for example on how to target breeding, or where disease threats are likely to be strongest. And for a sweet serving, here’s our humble contribution from Phase I to a world-favourite dessert!

We leave you with one final thought. It is not just cassava that is plagued with pride and prejudice; many foods attract high or low statuses in different regions – or even just variations of the same food. People in Asia and North America, for example, tend to prefer yellow maize, while Africans like their maize white. In fact, yellow maize still carries a powerful stigma in many parts of Africa, as this was the colour of the maize that arrived as external  aid in periods of famine, oftentimes perceived in Africa as animal fodder and not human food in the countries it was sourced from. And thus yellow maize became synonymous with terrible times and the suffering and indignity of being unable to feed oneself and one’s family. Consequently, some of the famine-stricken families would only cook the yellow ‘animal-fodder’  maize in the dead of night, to avoid ‘detection’ and preserve family pride and honour.

This might at first blush appear to be a minor curiosity on colour and coloured thinking, were it not for the fact that when crops – such as sweet potato, cassava, or indeed maize – are bred to be rich in pro-vitamin A, and so provide plenty of the vitamin A that is particularly crucial for young children and pregnant women, they take on a golden yellow-orange hue. When promoting the virtues of this enriched maize in parts of Africa, it’s vital to know that as ‘yellow maize’ it would fall flat on its face, but as ‘orange maize’ or ‘golden maize’ it is a roaring success. A tiny difference in approach and label, perhaps, but one that is a quantum leap in nutritional improvement, and in ‘de-stigmatisation’ and accelerating adoption. Ample proof then that sharing details matters, and that it’s good to talk – even about the things we are a little ashamed of, thereby breathing substance into the spirit of the theme ‘Generation Open’.

Do have some of these uncomfortable but candid conversations this Open Access Week and live its spirit to the fullest every day after that! As for us here at GCP, we shall continue to sow and cultivate the seeds of Generation next for plant breeding into the future, through our Integrated Breeding Platform which will outlive GCP.

A little girl in Zambia gets a valuable dose of vitamin A as she eats her orange maize.

Eyes dancing with past, present or future mischief, two cheeky young chappies from Mozambique enjoy the sweet taste of orange sweet potato enriched with pro-vitamin A.


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