Search Results : rice » GCP Blog

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.”



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

Armin Bhuiya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Armin at work at the greenhouse.

Armin at work at the IRRI greenhouse in 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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



Feb 212014


Steaming rice bowl

Steaming rice bowl

What’s the latest from ‘GCP TV’? Plenty! With a world-favourite – rice – featuring high and hot on the menu.

Now serving our latest news, to tease your taste-buds with a tantalising and tingling potpourri of memorable cross-continental rice flavours, all captured on camera for our viewers…

Our brand-new series on YouTube serves up a healthy seven-course video feast inviting our viewers to sink their teeth into rice research at GCP.

First, we settle down for a tête-a-tête in the rice research kitchen with chef extraordinaire, Marie-Noëlle Ndjiondjop, Principal Investigator (PI) of GCP’s Rice Research Initiative in Africa, and Senior Molecular Scientist at Africa Rice Center. Target countries are Burkina Faso, Mali and Nigeria.

Photo: A Okono/GCP

Marie-Noëlle Ndjiondjop

Starters, palate and pocket
Marie-Noëlle opens the feast with a short but succulent starter, as she explains succinctly in 30 seconds just how rice is becoming a staple in Africa. In the second course, Marie-Noëlle chews over the questions concerning combatting constraints and boosting capacity in rice research in Africa.

The third course is pleasing to the eye, the palate and the pocket! Marie-Noëlle truly sells us the benefits of molecular breeding, as she extolls the virtues of the “beauty of the marker”. Why should you use molecular tools? They’ll save you time and money!

Rice as beautiful as the markers Marie-Noëlle uses in molecular breeding

Wherefore art thou, capacity building in rice research in Africa?
The Shakespearean language alludes to the why of capacity building in Africa, as does video episode number four, which also tackles the what of this fourth dish in our banquet. Course number five offers the viewer a light look at how capacity building in Africa is carried out.

In the 6th course, Marie-Noëlle takes us out of this world and into MARS: she teaches us that ‘two are better than three’, as she explains how the novel bi-parental marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS) method is proving effective when it comes to duelling with drought, the tricky three-headed monster comprising physiological, genetic and environmental components.

Blooming rice in the field

Of stars and scoundrels
The 7th and final course offers us a riveting tale of heroes and villains, that is, many heroes and a single villain! Our rice raconteuse, Marie-Noëlle, praises the power of the team, as a crew from cross-continental countries come together, carefully characterise their combatant (drought), before striking with environment-specific drought-tolerant varieties! AfricaRice’s project partners are Burkina Faso’s Institut de l’environnement et de recherches agricoles (INERA); Mali’s Institut d’économie rurale (IER); and Nigeria’s National Cereals Research Institute (NCRI). Collaborators are France’s Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique (CIRAD); the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT); and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

We hope these tasty teasers are enough to whet your appetite – you can savour each of the courses individually à la carte, or, for those with a daring desire to try the ‘all you can eat’ buffet for true rice gourmets, all seven courses are presented as a single serving on our YouTube channel.

Jonaliza Lanceras-Siangliw

Jonaliza Lanceras-Siangliw

Tastes from Asia
To further please your palate with our rice bowl of delights, our next stop is Asia. We are  pleased to offer you the Asian flavour through a peek into the world of molecular rice breeding in the Mekong region. Our connection to this project is through a GCP-funded capacity-building project entitled A Community of Practice for strengthening rice breeding programmes by using genotyping building strategy and improving phenotyping capacity for biotic and abiotic stresses in the Mekong region led by PI Jonaliza Lanceras-Siangliw, of the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC), Thailand (see project poster, and slides on a related drought-tolerance project led by Boonrat Jongdee). BIOTEC’s partners in the Mekong rice breeding CoP are the Cambodian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI); LAO PDR’s National Agricultural and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI);  Myanmar’s Department of Agricultural Research (DAR); and Thailand’s Kasetsart University and Ubon Ratchathani University). The video also features former GCP PI, Theerayut Toojinda (BIOTEC) whose project was similarly entitled The ‘Community of Practices’ concept applied to rice production in the Mekong region: Quick conversion of popular rice varieties with emphasis on drought, salinity and grain quality improvement.


Boonrat Jongdee

Shifting gears: golden oldie
If all of this talk of eating has been a little overwhelming, we also offer you the perfect digestif: a ‘golden oldie’ in terms of GCP video history showing a 2012 BBC interview with former GCP PI, Sigrid Heuer, then at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), who explains how her project isolated the rice root-enhancing gene PSTOL1. Bon appétit!


Might you still have a corner of your mind yearning for more material on rice research? If so, check out the following:

  • Our lip-smacking selection of rice-related blogposts
  • A gorgeous gallery of PowerPoint presentations on rice research (SlideShare)
  • Check out our one-stop Rice InfoCentre for all things rice and nice, that we have online!


Sep 072012

Joko infront of his office at ICABIOGRAD’s Molecular Biology Division.

Indonesian upland rice growers can expect to receive improved varieties that thrive in phosphorus-poor soils within a few years, thanks to the hard work of their national breeding programmes.

Joko Prasetiyono is a proud Indonesian researcher who loves rice.

“I don’t know why. I just love researching ways to improve it so it grows and yields better. I also I love to eat it,” says Joko with a laugh.

Having worked as a molecular breeder, concentrating solely on rice for 17 years at the Indonesian Center for Agricultural Biotechnology and Genetic Resources Research and Development (ICABIOGRAD), one would expect a different reaction. But Joko says he’s as interested in the little white grain as much as when he started as an undergraduate with ICABIOGRAD.

And why wouldn’t he be when he and his team are contributing to research that has just been published in Nature and is set to reduce fertiliser application and improve rice yields in Indonesia and the world over by 20 percent!

Improving Indonesian varieties, no genetic modification

Farmers often use phosphate fertilisers to aid in growing rice in these areas, but this option is often too expensive for Indonesian upland growers.

The project has found plants that have a Pup1 locus (a collection of genes), with the specific gene PSTOL1, are able to tolerate phosphorus-deficient conditions and produce better yields than those not suited for the conditions. An Indian rice variety, Kasalath, was one such.

“We are breeding rice varieties that we know have a Pup1 locus and subsequent PSTOL1 gene in them with Indonesian varieties that are suited to Indonesia’s growing systems,” explains Joko.   

Partnering with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), ICABIOGRAD and their partner the Indonesian Center for Rice Research (ICRR) have improved the phosphorus tolerance of Indonesian rice varieties Dodokan, Situ Bagendit and Batur.

“The new plants we are creating are not genetically modified; just bred using smarter breeding techniques,” says Joko. “The aim is to breed varieties identical to those that farmers already know and trust, except that they will have the PSTOL1 gene and an improved ability to take up soil phosphorus.”

Joko says that these varieties are currently being tested in field trials and it will take another 2–3 years before Indonesian farmers will have a variety that will yield as well if not better, needing 30–50 percent less fertiliser.

Evolving Indonesian plant research 

ICABIOGRAD team selecting breeding material in 2010. L-R: Masdiar Bustamam, Tintin Suhartini and Ida Hanarida.

GCP is as much about its people and partnerships as its research and products. ICABIOGRAD benefited from a GCP capacity-building grant in mid-2007 to enhance the institute’s capacity in phenotyping and molecular analysis. The grant covered, among other areas, intensive residential staff training at IRRI; PhD student support; infrastructure such as a moist room, temperature-controlled centrifuge apparatus, computers and appropriate specialised software; and  a blast innoculation room. These capacity-building activities were coordinated by Masdiar Bustamam who has since retired, but was then a Senior Scientist at ICABIOGARD.

But coming back to Joko and the PSTOL1 work, Joko started on this project in 2005 as a GCP-funded PhD student at Bogor Agriculture University, Indonesia. He is grateful to be part of a transnational project, which has offered him technical support that he would not otherwise have been able to receive through ICABIOGRAD alone.

IRRI visits ICABIOGRAD in 2009. L-R: Matthias Wissuwa, Sigrid Heuer (both IRRI), Masdiar Bustaman (ICABIOGRAD) and Joong Hyoun Chin

Joko believes the experience of working with IRRI, as a joint partner on this project, will leave an important, and lasting, legacy for researchers at ICABIOGRAD and ICRR. The partnership has also challenged the two local institutes to broaden their horizons past their borders.

“IRRI is teaching us how to use marker-assisted selection and we [ICABIOGRAD and ICRR] are just as busy identifying phosphorus-deficient hotspots in upland areas, choosing the best Indonesian recipient rice varieties for the gene, conducting the breeding and phenotyping testing,” he clarifies.

Breeding for sustainability

The ultimate goal of this project is to help Indonesian growers use marginal land.

Over half the world rice lands are deficient of ‘plant-available’ phosphorus, and Indonesia is no different. Joko explains that while there is plenty of phosphorus in the soil, plants are not able to access it.

“Other minerals in the soil like aluminum, calcium and iron are bound to phosphorus, shielding it from plants roots so they can only absorb a fraction of it.”

Field test of Pup1 lines at Taman Bogo , Indonesia.

In most countries, farmers apply phosphate fertilisers to their crops to combat this deficiency. For Joko this is not a sustainable approach for a lot of Indonesia’s farmers because the fertilisers are expensive and costs will continue to rise as phosphate supplies dwindle.

“Our approach is a lot more sustainable and cost-effective than applying fertiliser. We’ll breed these new plants for phosphorus-poor soils to produce more roots so they can find more phosphorus. The more phosphorus they find, the more of it they can absorb.”

Joko hopes these new plants will help farmers on marginal lands to obtain decent yields without having to spend money on expensive phosphate fertilisers.

“It’s great that our work has been recognised by Nature for publication, but what we really want is to help rice growers here in Indonesia and around the world.”


Sep 072012

Preparing rice root samples (Photo: IRRI)ALL IN THE ROOTS: A plant’s roots are a marvellously multitalented organ. They act as fingers and mouths helping plants forage and absorb water and nutrients. They act like arms and legs offering a sturdy base of support so a plant doesn’t keel over. They help store food and water, like our stomach and fat cells. And in some plants, can spawn new life – we leave that to your imagination!

That is why it is of little surprise that this multitalented organ was the key to discovering why some rice lines yield better in phosphorus-poor soils, a puzzle whose answer has eluded farmers and researchers… until now.  And even better, the findings hold promise for sorghum, maize and wheat too. Please read on!

 In search of the key – The Gene Trackers
In 1999, Dr Matthias Wissuwa, now with the Japan International Research Centre for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS), deduced that Kasalath, a northern Indian rice variety, contained one or more genes that allowed it to grow successfully in low-phosphorus conditions.

For years, Matthias made it his mission to find these genes, only to find it was as easy as finding a needle in a genetic haystack. He teamed up with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), and with GCP’s support, the gene trackers were able to narrow the search down to five genes of interest.

“We had started with 68 genes and within three years, we had narrowed in on these five candidate genes. And then, one-by-one, we checked whether they were related to phosphorous uptake,” recollects Dr Sigrid Heuer, senior scientist at IRRI and leader of the team that published the discovery in Nature in August 2012.

Sigrid Heuer at a rice phosphorus uptake demonstration field in The Philippines.

“In the end we found that if a certain protein kinase gene was turned on in tolerant plants like Kasalath, then those plants would perform better in phosphorus-deficient soils.”

They named this protein kinase gene PSTOL1, which stands for Phosphorus Starvation Tolerance. “When we put this gene into intolerant rice varieties that did not have this gene, they performed better in phosphorus-deficient soils.”

The importance of phosphorus
Rice, like all plants, needs phosphorus to survive and thrive. It’s a key element in plant metabolism, root growth, maturity and yield. Plants deficient in phosphorus are often stunted.

Sigrid explains that whereas phosphorus is abundant in most soils, it is however not always easily accessible by plants. “Many soil types bond tightly to phosphorus, surrendering only a tiny amount to plant roots. This is why more than half of the world’s rice lands are phosphorus-deficient.”

Farmers can get around this by applying phosphate fertilisers. However this is a very expensive exercise and is not an option for the majority of the world’s rice growers, especially the poorer ones –the price of rock phosphate has more than doubled since 2007. The practice is also not sustainable since it is a finite resource.

By selecting for rice varieties with PSTOL1, growers will be less reliant on phosphate fertilisers.

How it works: unravelling PSTOL1 mechanics
In phosphorus-poor soils, PSTOL1 switches on during the early stage of root development. The gene tells the plant to grow larger longer roots, which are able to forage through more soil to absorb and store more nutrients.

“By having a larger root surface area, plants can explore a greater area in the soil and find more phosphorus than usual,” says Sigrid. “It’s like having a larger sponge to absorb more water.”

A rice variety — IR-74 — with Pup1 (left) and without Pup1 (right).

Although the researchers focussed on this one key nutrient, they found the extra root growth helped with other vital elements like nitrogen and potassium.

Another by-chance discovery was that phosphorus uptake 1 (Pup1), the collection of genes (locus) where PSTOL1 is found, is present within a large group of rice varieties.

“We found that in upland rice varieties – those bred for drought-prone environments – most have Pup1,” says Sigrid. “So the breeders in these regions have, without knowing it, been selecting for phosphorus tolerance.”

“When thinking about it, it makes sense as phosphorus is very immobile in dry soils, therefore these plants would have had to adapt to grow longer roots to reach water deeper in the soil and this, at the same time, helps to access more reservoirs of phosphorous .”

Breeding for phosphorus tolerance, and going beyond rice
Using conventional breeding methods, Sigrid says that her team introduced PSTOL1 into two irrigated rice varieties and three Indonesian upland varieties, and found that this increased yields by up to 20 percent.

“In our pot experiments,” she added, “when we use soil that is really low in phosphorus, we see yield increases of 60 percent and more. This will mean growers of upland rice varieties will probably benefit the most from these new lines, which is pleasing given they are among the poorest rice growers in the world.”

Read how Indonesian researchers are developing their own breeds of upland rice with the PSTOL1 gene

Sigrid also sheds light on broadening the research to other crop varieties: “The project team is currently looking at Pup1 in sorghum and maize and we are just about to start on wheat.”

Building capacity and ensuring impact
Like all GCP projects, this one invests as much time in building capacity for country breeding programmes as on research.

Sigrid and her team are currently conducting the first Pup1 workshop to train researchers from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. They will share molecular markers that indicate the presence of PSTOL1, techniques to select for the gene, as well as for new phosphorus-efficient varieties.

Breeding for phosphorus-efficient rice in the Philippines.

“The aim of these workshops is to take these important tools to where they are most needed and allow them to evolve according to the needs and requirements of each country,” says Dr Rajeev Varshney, GCP’s Comparative and Applied Genomics Leader. “Breeders will be able to breed new rice varieties faster and more easily, and with 100 percent certainty that their rice plants will have the gene. Within three to five years, each country will be able to breed varieties identical to those that growers know and trust except that they will now have the Pup1 gene and an improved ability to unlock and take up soil phosphorus.”

Joining hands in collaboration
This IRRI-led project was conducted in collaboration with JIRCAS and the Indonesian Center for Agricultural Biotechnology and Genetic Resources Research and Development (ICABIOGRAD) working with the Indonesian Centre for Rice Research. Other partners included: Italy’s University of Milano, Germany’s Max Planck Institute in Golm, the University of The Philippines at Los Baños, USA’s Cornell University and University of California (Davis and Riverside), Brazil’s EMBRAPA, Africa Rice Center, Iran’s Agricultural Biotechnology Research Institute, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and University of Dhaka in Bangladesh.


Sigrid’s presentation at the GCP General Research Meeting 2011

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).




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.



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.


Dec 032014

The latest – and most readily available – tools for breeders are often intangible things, such as ideas, approaches and even software. But they also include new physical tools, such as electronic tablets to make data collection more efficient. Read on to discover how structured user testing paved a path from pioneer to perfection.

This article was first published on the Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP) website on the 17th of October 2011, and is republished here as a complement to our last blogpost on the Integrated Breeding Multiyear Course (IB–MYC), illustrating yet another facet of our multi-pronged approach to capacity building.

From small and sweet to bigger and better, this ‘cure’ might just do the trick… After initial testing of small electronic handheld devices for field data collection, followed by extensive testing of alternative options on the market, an appropriate digital tablet was identified. Last month (September 2011), 20 tablets were distributed to IBP users from research programmes in Africa and Asia for pre-test. Should this user evaluation be positive, the plan is to distribute more of these tablets in the future, to a total ‘dosage’ of between 100–200 tablets in all, in the course of the next 12 months.

Flashback to February 2011: Pioneer handheld devices

The road behind us

We initially started by piloting smaller handheld devices (Honeywell and HP iPaq) among a small set of selected users, to get feedback from them, and collectively see what would work best to meet their needs. The smaller, handheld devices were piloted in late 2009 into early 2010 for evaluation by users.

Significantly, some institutes such as AfricaRice and IITA even procured additional units at their own cost – an act which speaks for itself. Most of our users reported finding the devices easy to use, simple and straight forward. Plus, they reported that it increases efficiency, saves time and minimises data error because data are recorded in a ready-for-use format. But it wasn’t all a bed of roses and there a few thorns as well: users encountered difficulties in synchronisation between the handheld and their computer due to configuration conflicts. The small screen and keyboard and short battery life also brought no joy, and data collection for multiple samples was a problem.

But enough from us on the pros and cons! Here is what some of the users from the rice and sorghum Research Initiatives (RIs) had to say way back in February 2011. As you will see, almost all of them got incurably ‘digitally infected’ despite the cons reported with the small portable devices.

In their own words: Users speak

Akinwale Gbenga of AfricaRice, Ibadan, Nigeria, pictured in the field recording data using the handheld device

Q: What has been your experience with the handheld device?

akinwale_tabletAkinwale: This device was very timely for us because we were already exploring and experiment with ways to improve the way data were being collected. The handheld device has greatly improved our efficiency. Previously, we’d collect data in a physical workbook then the data would be transferred manually to the computer. The handheld device saves time, guarantees accurate entries with no proofreading required, and safeguards the data: there is no risk of datasheets being lost or misplaced. With this device, what is recorded in the field is what is transferred into the computer without any errors. Whereas when deciphering handwriting, it’s very easy to confuse 3 for 8, 7 for 9, and so on, even when it is your own writing. Also, when working in the lowlands, mud smears and water smudges on the paper sometimes mean that handwritten data cannot be read. In a timed exercise to compare this new method and the usual methods, it took me 35 minutes to enter one trait and the job was fully done. With the usual methods, it would have taken me double the time since I would have had to manually collect and enter data then proofread entries.

Q: What drawbacks or concerns might you have observed about the device, and what would you advise?

Akinwale: The battery lasts four hours, so it is important to ensure it is fully charged before going to the field. Data collection is best done in the morning to avoid reflection and glare from the screen. I’m not sure how long the device will last, but I have no doubt that it is good value for money. Some programming work will also be needed to cater for traits that need multiple measurements.

ibnou_dieng_0Ibonou Dieng, a biometrician, AfricaRice, commented, “The only dataset that is complete at this time is for the station that had the handheld device. This underscores the efficiency of the handheld device. We therefore plan to disseminate the handheld device to all our rice RI partners in Burkina Faso, Mali and Nigeria. Significantly, management at AfricaRice has committed to buy the device for other projects as well for use in recording dry-season data in March.” Ibnou is one of the Joint Co-ordinators of the of the Data Managers Community of Practice with specific responsibility for Africa.

bashir_mohammedBashir Mohamed, a researcher and data manager at Nigeria’s National Cereal Research Institute at Badeggi, was impatiently waiting for the handheld device and observed, “Manual data collection and entry is extremely laborious. It generally involves three people – a field technician to do the counting, a data manager to do the recording and the breeder. With the handheld device, this job can be done by the data manager singlehandedly.”

aboubacar_diarraAboubacar Diarra, an Assistant Rice Breeder at l’Institut d’economie rurale in Mail noted, “The handheld device promises many advantages, and eases the task of data collection. Generally, it is rare to collect, enter and verify data all on the same day, meaning that should anomalies be noted at verification, the reality in the field may have significantly changed by the time one returns to the site to take a new reading. By easing the job, the handheld device makes it possible to do all three steps in a single day, and therefore to return to the field if need be for verification in good time.”

alexis_traoreAlexis Traore, Institut de l’environnement et de recherche agricole (INERA), Burkina Faso, said, “Data management is indispensable for molecular breeding, and therefore an understanding of data management is absolutely essential. We need training in data management and on new tools such as the handheld device that can help us manage data better. That way, we not only learn but we’ll also train other scientists as well as students who come to our institutes.”

marie-noelle_ndjiondjopMarie-Noëlle Ndjiondjop of AfricaRice, and the Rice Research Initiative Principal Investigator, summed it up thus:“Our riceproject has and will continue to produce a lot of data. The time to think about data management is now. We will ensure that all our rice RI partners receive the handheld device, and we are glad to note that the management at AfricaRice is actively promoting the device and recommending it for all breeding programmes at the Centre.”

But not all the users were complimentary, convinced and converted…

niaba_temeNiaba Teme, a sorghum breeder at L’Institut d’économie rurale, Mali, complained, “The handheld device is difficult to use. For traits like flowering which occurs at different times, you have to scroll to find the plot and flower which is time-consuming. It’s also difficult to work with it outdoors in the sunshine. Pen and paper are easier to use.” Niaba Teme is co-PI for the BCNAM project of the Sorghum Research Initiative.

On balance though, the concept of electronic data collection was clearly appreciated and was creating a ‘positive epidemic’, but clearly, a better tool was needed. Users recommended that IBP explore alternative mobile devices such as the tablet, to address the cons and drawbacks reported by Niaba and others on the small handheld devices. We listened and acted…

Fastforward to September 2011

tablet_photoTaking into account the comprehensive feedback received from users, the IBP team, led by Arllet Portugal, the Informatics Coordinator, set out to identify an appropriate handheld device that would meet the needs of users. They settled on a Samsung Galaxy 10.1-inch digital tablet (pictured) because it uses a common and open Honeycomb Android operating system specially designed for tablets, it has a large clear screen for easy viewing, good battery life and is lightweight and relatively robust. It can also communicate with a bar-code reader.

The 20 partners who received the tablet in September 2011 appeared very pleased with it, and committed to provide systematic and structured feedback over a one-year test period. Terms and conditions apply for this receipt: tablet recipients signed formal contracts whereby they will have to demonstrate that they indeed used the tablet to capture field data. Once preliminary feedback is received from this pioneer set of tablet users and analysed, the circle of evaluators will be expanded by contacting other users interested in trying out digital data-collection devices. And to maximise benefit and mutual learning, the IBP team will organise a forum for tablet users – probably around the next IBP annual meeting – to share experiences and tips, including a data clinic, should there be need.

We shall be following their experience with the tablet, so please watch this space to stay with the story, and travel with our users on what we trust will be a very momentous road ahead!

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