Jun 242014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

erect cass1_LS 4 web

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Slides by Chiedozie and Emmanuel


More links


Mar 062014
Restless Rebecca
Rebecca Nelson

Rebecca Nelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Oct 302012

BREAK-TIME AND BRAKE-TIME from beans for a bit: Steve Beebe takes a pause to strike a pose in a bean field.

“These [molecular breeding] techniques, combined with conventional methods, shorten the time it takes to breed improved varieties  that simultaneoulsy combine several traits.

And this means that we also get them out to farmers more quickly compared to phenotypic selection alone.”
– Steve Beebe

THE NEAR-PERFECT FOOD: Common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris L) comprise the world’s most important food legume, feeding about 200 million people in sub-Saharan Africa alone. Their nutritional value is so high, they have been termed ‘a near-perfect food’. They are also easy to grow, adapting readily to different cropping systems and maturing quickly.

That said, this otherwise versatile, adaptable and dapper dicotyledon does have some inherent drawbacks and ailments that crop science seeks to cure….

Rains are rapidly retreating, and drought doggedly advancing
Despite the crop’s widespread cultivation in Africa, “yields are low, stagnating at between 20 and 30 percent of their potential,” remarks Steve Beebe, GCP’s Product Delivery Coordinator for beans, and a researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT, by its Spanish acronym).

“The main problem is drought, brought about by climate change,” he says. “And it’s spreading – it already affects 70 percent of Africa’s major bean-producing regions.”  Drought decimates bean harvests in most of Eastern Africa, but is particularly severe in the mid-altitudes of Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Zimbabwe, as well as in southern Africa as a whole.

A myriad of forms and hues: bean diversity eloquently speaks for itself in this riot of colours.

Drought, doubt and duality − Diversity a double-edged sword
“Common beans can tolerate drought to some extent, using various mechanisms that differ from variety to variety,” explains Steve. But breeding for drought resistance is complicated by the thousands of bean varieties that are available. They differ considerably according to growth habit, seed colour, shape, size and cooking qualities, and cultivation characteristics.

“A variety might be fantastic in resisting drought,” says Steve, ‘but if its plant type demands extra work, the farmers won’t grow it,” he explains. “Likewise, if consumers don’t like the seed colour, or the beans take too long to cook, then they won’t buy.”

Molecular breeding deals a hand, waves a wand, and weaves a band
This is where molecular breeding techniques come in handy, deftly dealing with the complexities of breeding drought-resistant beans that also meet farmer and consumer preferences. No guesswork about it: molecular breeding rapidly and precisely gets to the heart of the matter, and helps weave all these different ‘strands’ together.

The bean research team has developed ‘genetic stocks’, or strains of beans that are crossed with the varieties favoured by farmers and consumers. The ‘crosses’ are made so that the gene or genes with the desired trait are incorporated into the preferred varieties.

The resulting new varieties are then evaluated for their performance in different environments throughout eastern and southern Africa, with particular focus on Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe which are the target countries of the Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project.

Propping up the plant protein: a veritable tapestry of terraces of climbing beans.

GCP supported this foundation work to develop these molecular markers. This type of breeding – known in breeder parlance as marker-assisted selection (MAS) – was also successfully used to combine and aggregate resistance to drought; to pests such as bean stem maggot (BSM); and to diseases such as bean common mosaic necrosis potyvirus (BCNMV) and to bruchid or common bacterial blight (CBB). The resulting ‘combinations’ laden with all this good stuff were then bred into commercial-type bean lines.

“These techniques, combined with conventional methods, shorten the time it takes to breed improved varieties that simultaneoulsy combine several traits,” comments Steve. “This means that we also get them out to farmers more quickly compared to phenotypic selection alone.”

Informed by history and reality
Breeding new useful varieties is greatly aided by first understanding the crop’s genetic diversity, and by always staying connected with the reality on the ground: earlier foundation work facilitated by GCP surfaced the diversity in the bean varieties that farmers grow, and how that diversity could then be broadened with genes to resist drought, pests and disease.

What next?
Over the remaining two years of Phase II of the Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project, the bean team will use the genetic tools and breeding populations to incorporate drought tolerance into farmer- and market-preferred varieties. “Hence, productivity levels on smallholder farms are expected to increase significantly,” says Steve.

The work on beans is led by CIAT, working in partnership with Ethiopia’s South Agricultural Research Institute (SARI),  the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI),  Malawi’s Department of Agricultural Research and Technical Services (DARTS) and  Zimbabwe’s Crop Breeding Institute (CBI) of the Department of Research and Specialist Services (DR&SS).

Other close collaborators include the eastern, central and southern Africa regional bean research networks (ECABREN and SABRN, their acronyms) which are components of the Pan-African Bean Research Alliance (PABRA). Cornell University (USA) is also involved.

VIDEO: Steve talks about what has been achieved so far in bean research, and what remains to be done



Jun 302012

“When we first started working on this project in mid-2007, our breeding programme was very weak,” says Paul Kimurto (pictured), Lead Scientist for chickpea research in the Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project, Kenya, and a lecturer in Crop Science at Egerton University.

“We have since accumulated a lot of germplasm, a chickpea reference set, and a mapping population, all of which have greatly boosted our breeding programme. From these, we have been able to select appropriate genotypes, and we obtained 400 breeding lines. None of this would have been directly possible without GCP’s support,” adds Paul. [Editor’s note: A ‘reference set’ is a sub-sample of existing germplasm collections that facilitates and enables access to existing crop diversity for desired traits, such as drought tolerance or resistance to disease or pests]

Due to their hardiness against drought, chickpeas have been steadily gaining popularity in Kenyan drylands – including the dry highlands – where they are grown as a ‘relay’ crop after wheat and maize harvests during the short rains, when the land would otherwise lie fallow. “Chickpeas have therefore increased food security and nutritional status of more than 27,000 households living in Baringo, Koibatek, Kerio Valley and Bomet Districts in Kenya, who frequently face hunger due to frequent crop failure of main staples such as maize and beans owing to climate change,” says Paul.

Chickpea adoption in these areas has increased due to close collaboration between GCP, ICRISAT and Egerton University through funding, training, resources and germplasm facilitated by GCP.

Exposure and capacity building
Through the project, various members of the Egerton research team have benefited from training in Europe, Africa and Asia on wide-ranging aspects of modern breeding, including data management. The learning resources that the team accesses through GCP are also shared widely and used as teaching materials and resources for faculty staff and postgraduate students not directly involved in the project.

“We have also benefitted from physical infrastructure such as a rain-shelter, irrigation system, laboratory equipment and a greenhouse. We didn’t have these, and probably couldn’t have had them, because all these are costly investments. This has greatly improved the efficiency of not only our research, but also our teaching,” says Paul. In addition, three postgraduate students are supported by GCP – two are pursuing PhDs and one a Masters, all using modern molecular breeding methods in their studies.

VIDEO: Paul discusses capacity building in Kenya, alongside other TLI colleagues

Community gains

Besides the university, capacity building has benefited the broader community: agricultural extension staff from the Ministry of Agriculture and from Koibatek Farmers Training Centre (one of the project’s research site), have been trained in various fields. The Centre manager attended a GCP course in Ghana tailored for research station staff (link below), as did an Egerton University technician.

In addition to aiding research trials, the irrigation system and weather station installed at Koibatek help with teaching and producing crop seed and planting materials as well as pasture for the community, since the Centre has a mandate to provide high-quality seed and livestock breeds to the community.

According to Beatrice Komen, a farmer in Koibatek, the irrigation system “has enabled the Agricultural Training Centre supply us with high-quality pasture and crop seeds for planting during the right time because Egerton University uses it to produce sufficient seed without having to rely on seasonal conditions.”

Paul adds, “The automated weather station is a first in the region.” The weather station also feeds regional data into the national meteorological database and is used for teaching by secondary schools in the community.

Going further, faster
Paul observes “With the direct funding we obtain through the project, we are able to expand into other areas of dryland research such as soil science and nitrogen fixation for chickpeas. Our efficiency has also increased: with the greenhouse and rainout shelter, we can now rapidly obtain generation crosses. And the irrigation system means we can now do off-season trials without having to wait for seasonal changes.”

“We have learnt a lot through our involvement with the Programme, including outsourcing of genotyping services which GCP fully supports, the advanced tools and wide range of services offered by the Integrated Breeding Platform for both breeding and data management,” says Paul. “We have also received digital tablet for electronic field data collection in a more efficient and accurate manner compared to the traditional pen and paper.”

The goal
“Our goal is to apply the modern breeding methods we have learnt to release new improved drought- and disease-resistant varieties before the project closes in mid-2014.” Some of these new methods include using quantitative trait loci (QTLs) through marker-assisted selection (MAS) and marker-assisted backcrossing (MABC).

“The results we obtain will provide foundation seed that can then be used for mass production through the Tropical Legumes II project,” says Paul.

“Our task is not complete until we have improved varieties in the hands of farmers,” he concludes.

VIDEO on farmer participation, and the relevance of genomics – Paul and TLI colleagues

Related links

Jun 262012

It’s all about water and weakness  or strength. The Greek legend has it that Achilles was dipped into River Styx by his mother, Thetis, in order to make him invulnerable. His heel wasn’t covered by the water and he later died of the wound from an arrow that struck his heel.

In our times, this analogy can be applied to chickpeas, where this streetwise tough customer in the crop kingdom that thrives on the most rugged terrains is hamstrung if there is no rain at the critical grain-filling period – its sole Achilles’ heel, when it cannot take the searing heat in the drylands it otherwise thrives in.

But before you read on about the latter-day borrowing of this ancient legend, and science’s quest to heal the hit from heat and to cure the crop’s fatal flaw on water, first, an important aside…

Who’s now calling the shots in chickpea research?

Molecular breeding in Phase I was led by ICRISAT, with country partners in a supporting role. In Phase II, activities are being led by country partners, which also assures sustainability and continuity of the work. ICRISAT is now in a facilitating role, providing training and data, while the research work is now in the hands of country partners.” – Pooran Gaur, Principal Scientist: Chickpea Breeding,  ICRISAT.

The facts
Chickpeas are an ancient crop that was first domesticated in central and western Asia. Today, this crop is cultivated in 40 countries and is second only to common beans as the food legume most widely grown by smallholders. The two main types of chickpeas – desi and kabuli – are valuable for both subsistence and cash.

Even for the hardy, times are tough
“Chickpeas are well-known to be drought-tolerant,” says Rajeev K Varshney, Principal Investigator of the project to improve chickpeas work in the Tropical Legumes I Project (TLI). He explains, “The plants are very efficient in using water and possess roots that seek out residual moisture in deeper soil layers.” However, he points out that, with changing climatic conditions, especially in drier areas, terminal drought – when rain does not fall during grain-filling – is the crop’s Achilles’ heel, and principal production constraint.

“Chickpeas are such tough plants that, even for conditions of terminal drought, yields can be increased by improving root characteristics and water-use efficiency,” says Rajeev. The research team has identified several lines with superior traits such as drought tolerance, after screening a set of 300 diverse lines selected based on molecular diversity of large germplasm collections.

VIDEO CLIP: Recipe for chickpea success

Enhancing the genetic makeup to beat the heat
The team went on to develop genomic resources such as molecular markers. With these markers, the team developed a high-density genetic map, and identified a genomic region containing several quantitative trait loci (QTLs), conferring drought tolerance. “QTLs help pinpoint, more specifically, the location of genes that govern particular traits like root length” explains Rajeev.

Longer roots will naturally give the plants a deeper reach into the water table. Root length is the difference between survival and perishing, which is why trees will be left standing on a landscape otherwise laid bare by prolonged drought.

Q for ‘quick’: QTLs speed things along from lab to field, and running with the winners
The discovery of QTLs makes identifying tolerant plants not only easier, but also cheaper and faster. “This means that better-adapted varieties will reach farmers faster, improving food security,” says Rajeev.

Pooran Gaur, GCP’s Product Delivery Coordinator for chickpeas, Principal Scientist for Chickpea Breeding at ICRISAT, and an important collaborator on the TLI project, adds, “We began marker-assisted selection backcrossing (MABC) in Phase I. By 2011, lines were already being evaluated in Ethiopia, India and Kenya. We are now at the stage of singling out the most promising lines.”

Putting chickpeas to the test: Rajeev Varshney (left) and Pooran Gaur (right) inspecting a chickpea field trial.

What was achieved in Phase I, and what outcomes are expected?
Phase I run from mid-2007 to mid-2010, during which time 10 superior lines for improved drought tolerance and insect resistance were identified for Ethiopia, Kenya and India. As well, a total of 1,600 SSR markers and 768 SNPs on GoldenGate assays were developed, along with an expanded DArT array with more than 15,000 features. A high-density reference genetic map and two intraspecific genetic maps were developed.

“We now have materials from marker-assisted backcrossing by using the genomic resources we produced in Phase I. These materials were sent to partners last year [2011]. And because in most cases we have the same people working in TLI as in TLII, this material is being simultaneously evaluated across six to seven locations by all TLI and TLII partners,” says Pooran.

“Preliminary analysis of data is quite encouraging and it seems that we will have drought-tolerant lines soon,” adds Rajeev.

Future work, and who’s now calling the shots in the field
In Phase II, 1,500 SNPs on cost-effective KASPar assays have been developed that have been useful to develop a denser genetic map. In collaboration with University of California–Davis (USA) and the National Institute of Plant Genome Research (India), a physical map has been developed that will help to isolate the genes underlying the QTL region for drought tolerance. A novel molecular breeding approach called marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS) has been adopted. Over the remaining two years of Phase II, the chickpea work will focus on developing chickpea populations with superior genotypes for drought tolerance through MABC and MARS.

Pooran adds, “Molecular breeding in Phase I was led by ICRISAT, with country partners in a supporting role. In Phase II, activities are being led by country partners, which also assures sustainability and continuity of the work. ICRISAT is now in a facilitating role, providing training and data, while the MABC and MARS aspects are both in the hands of country partners.”

“Another important activity in Phase II is development of multi-parents advanced generation intercross (MAGIC) population that will help generation of genetic populations with enhanced genetic diversity,” says Rajeev.

The chickpea work is led by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), working with partners at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research, Egerton University in Kenya, and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute. Additional collaborators in Phase I included the University of California–Davis (USA), the National Center for Genome Resources (USA) and DArT P/L (Australia).

For more information on the overall work in chickpeas, please contact Rajeev K Varshney, Principal Investigator of the chickpea work.

Video: Featuring Rajeev and partners Fikre Asnake (Ethiopia) and Paul Kimurto (Kenya)

Related links



Jun 202012

Breathing life into support services

By addressing the needs at the heart of quality agricultural research, right there on the station, GCP was the first to cotton on to a crucial missing link between researcher, research station, and support services.” – Hannibal Muhtar

Want to cut to the chase and only need the bare bones of this story? Skip over to the short version

“One thing that really energises me,” enthuses GCP Consultant Hannibal Muhtar, “is seeing people understand why they need to do the work, and being given the chance to do the how.” And so was born another wonderfully fruitful GCP collaboration. Hannibal, who describes the assignment as “a breath of fresh air,” was asked to identify, together with GCP project Principal Investigators, African research sites of ongoing or potential GCP Research Initiative projects where effective scientific research might be hampered by significant gaps in one fundamental area: infrastructure, equipment and support services.

Meet Hannibal Muhtar (Audio clip)

As at June 2012, the 19 sites selected were:

Burkina Faso – L’Institut de l’environnement et de recherches agricoles sites at :
1.  Banfora
2.  Farako-Bâ Regional Centre
3.  Hawassa Agricultural Research Station
4.  The Southern Agricultural Research Institute
Ghana – Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Crops Research Institute sites at:
5.  Kumasi
6.  Tamale
7.    Moi University (site 1)
8.    Moi University (site 2)
9.    Egerton University (Njoro site)
10.    Egerton University (Koibatek Farmers Training Centre)
Mali – L’Institut d’Économie Rurale sites at:
11.    Sotuba
12.    Cinzana
13.    Longrola
Niger – ICRISAT site
14.    Sadore
15.    National Cereals Research Institute
National Root Crops Research Institute sites at:
16.    Umudike
17.    Kano
Tanzania – Agricultural Research Institute at:
18.    Naliendele
19.    Mtwara

Flashback to 2010. Picture on the left: Hannibal at a planning session at Sega, Western Kenya, with Samuel Gudu and  Onkware Augustino. Picture on the right: Similarly, at Naliendele, in Tanzania with Omari Mponda.

Flashback to 2010. Picture on the left: Hannibal at a planning session at Sega, Western Kenya, with Samuel Gudu and  Onkware Augustino. Picture on the right: Similarly, at Naliendele, in Tanzania with Omari Mponda.

Embarking on the voyage to change, storms ‘n’ all
Hannibal, armed with years of practical experience in the application of engineering sciences in agriculture and developing countries, as well as an attentive ear to the real needs of researchers, embarked on a series of visits to these research stations in 2010 and 2011, meeting with staff of all levels, departments and functions, carrying out in-depth analyses and draw up concrete recommendations for infrastructure and support service investments for each of the sites so that good-quality field evaluations (‘phenotyping’ in ‘breeder-speak) of GCP-funded projects could be conducted. Thanks to funding from GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP), and to the openness, commitment and energy of research staff on the ground to implement these recommendations, the efforts of multiple cross-cutting partnerships across Sub-Saharan Africa are, in 2012, starting to bear fruit. But it has not all been smooth sailing, and the storms encountered along the way to reach this end goal should not be underestimated.

Weeds, wear and tear, and a walk on the wild side
The obstacles, says GCP’s Director of Research, Xavier Delannay (pictured, can often be mundane in nature – a  lack of or faulty weather stations or irrigation systems, or fields ravaged by weeds or drainage problems and in dire need of rehabilitation, for example. Yet such factors compromise brilliant research. A simple lack of fencing, Xavier and Hannibal expound, commonly results not only in equipment being stolen, but also in roaming cattle and wild animals – boars, monkeys, hippopotamus and hyena, to name but a few – stomping over precious experiment sites and posing serious threats to field staff safety. “The real challenge lies not in the science, but rather in the real nuts-and-bolts of getting the work done in local field conditions,” he explains.’’

Hannibal concurs: “If GCP had not invested in these research support infrastructure and services, then their investment in research would have been in vain. Tools and services must be in place as and when needed, and in good working order. Tractors must be able to plough when they should plough.’’

But a critical change is also needed in mindset and budgeting. ‘’The word ‘maintenance,’’’ a Senegalese partner commented to Hannibal, describing his institute, “does not exist in our vocabulary and is not a line-item on our budget.”

The problem then is not always about limited funds but rather much more on how the funds available are budgeted, excluding the all-essential support services.

Getting down to the brass tacks of local empowerment, and aiming higher
Multi-lingual and fluent in English, Arabic and French, Hannibal employed a multi-faceted customised approach, based on the needs of each site, be it sharing his tricks-of-the-trade and improvising local solutions, or guiding researchers in identifying their specific needs, as well as on where and how to request equipment, just to mention a few examples. In other cases he would teach local station managers to build and apply simple yet revolutionary tools such as land-levellers (referred to as ‘floats’ in industrial-speak), as well as row-markers for more uniform spacing between rows and plants in the field.

In addition, he would organise a training workshops in either English or French, with different content for technicians, machine operators and station managers. The dedication demonstrated by this latter group to both learn and continue these efforts after the training was particularly pertinent for ensuring the long-term sustainability of the investments.

A colourful menu of options, then, for achieving one common overarching objective, which, as summarised neatly by Xavier, is: “The effective running of local experiment stations, for facilitating local research, improving local crops, and ultimately leading to empowerment and self-reliance of local farming communities.”

“At the end of the day, it’s about achieving food security and improving livelihoods,” Hannibal emphasises. Looking back at some of the research stations that are now well-equipped and are being managed well, and the improved crop varieties being produced and projected, Hannibal highlights the “harmonious chain” triggered as a result: “Food security and better livelihoods pave way for healthy, well-fed families, and agriculture growing beyond subsistence into an economic activity,” Hannibal concludes.

Lights, curtain… ACTION!
Much like in theatre, with all the ‘props’ in place, Hannibal reports that field trials are now performing well, thanks to the all-important ‘backstage’ support service elements being in good shape. Hannibal likens the positive feedback from the partners he has worked with to “A glass of cold water, after a long day in the sun!”

And there’s a beautiful simplicity to the impacts described: “With proper infrastructure in place, and with research station staff duly equipped with the hands-on expertise and practical know-how to utilise and apply this infrastructure and training, we’re now seeing field experiments being conducted as they should be, and getting good-quality phenotyping data as a result,” says Xavier. “Moreover,” he continues, “by providing glass-houses or the capacity to irrigate in the dry season, we are enabling breeders to accelerate their breeding cycles, so that they can work all year round, rather than having to wait until the rain comes.” Sites hosting GCP projects on rice in Nigeria, as well as on sorghum and rice in Mali, are just a few examples of those enjoying off-season work thanks to new irrigation systems.

Similar good news is expected soon for cassava in Ghana and in northern Nigeria. And yet more good news: in some cases, the impacts have not been limited to the trials, or even to the research trials and stations alone, as Xavier highlights with an example from Kenya: “The establishment of an irrigation system on a plot at Koibatek Farmer Training Centre – a partner of Egerton University – yielded excellent results for chickpea experiments. We emphasised that we did not want the equipment to be ‘bracketed’ exclusively for science and experiments. So, it was also used to train staff and farmers from the local community as well. This was greatly appreciated.”

Seeing the nuts-and-bolts now firmly in place for the majority of the sites visited, Hannibal believes GCP has facilitated a pioneering approach to local capacity building: “By addressing the needs at the heart of quality agricultural research, right there on the station, GCP was the first to cotton on to a crucial missing link between researcher, research station, and support services,” he reveals.

…Another missing link…
But the job is not quite done. One crucial gap is the sensitisation of upper management – those at the helm of national research institutes and research station Directors – to support and sustain infrastructure, training and related services. In some cases, costs could be easily met by utilising a priceless asset that most institutes already have, and which they could put to greater us – land and a controlled environment.

Upper management needs to be actively on board. “A research institute should work like a good sewing machine,” says Hannibal. “All well-oiled, all parts working well, and everybody knowing what they need to do.”

In the meantime, however, results from the field suggest that researchers in GCP projects are already reaping the benefits from improved infrastructure and support services, and are already off to a good start.

The stage is therefore set: backstage and props are well primed, performance trials are acting like they should, and the ‘theatre directors’ have an eye on sustainability after GCP’s final curtain call in 2014.

So, long may the show go on, with a cautionary word, however, to continually seek ways to not only maintain but also enhance performance!

Relevant links

  • PODCASTS: You can also listen to Hannibal, by tuning into Episode 2 for the entire interview, or zooming in on your particular area of interest in the mini-podcasts labelled Episodes 2.1 to 2.7 c here.
  • Capacity building
  • Research Initiatives
  • Integrated Breeding Platform website


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