Jan 312014
Arllet Portugal

Arllet Portugal

Today, we chit-chat with Arllet Portugal (pictured) on crop research data management. Arllet’s greatest daily challenge is convincing crop breeders and other crop researchers that their research data are just as important as their core research work. She also educates us on what she means by ‘SHARP’ data management. But first, a little background on Arllet…

Transitions, travels and tools
Plant breeding is in Arllet Portugal’s blood. Her father (now retired), one of the original field staff of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at Los Baños in The Philippines, nurtured it in her from a tender age. It’s easy to picture him sharing fascinating tales daily with his family upon coming home, after a day of hard work in sun-splashed paddies where he nurtured mysterious and exotic new lines of rice which he was told may hold the solution to world hunger.

“He loved what IRRI stood for and admired the research they did,” reminisces Arllet. “I think he hoped one day he would have a son or daughter working alongside the researchers, so I guess I fulfilled that wish!” She adds “His IRRI stories still continue to this day, and I have learnt much from him which continues to give me deeper insights in my work and interactions with crop scientists.”

Having lived most of her life under the canopy of IRRI, including 12 years working as a database administrator at the Institute, she decided it was time for a change, and she spread her wings – an adventure that would take her across the oceans, pose new challenges, and plunge her deeper into agricultural research beyond IRRI’s mandate crop, rice. So, in 2009, she packed her bags and headed to Mexico, having accepted a position as a crop informatician for wheat at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), and then moving over to GCP the following year as Informatics Coordinator, and later on Data Management Leader of GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP).

The Platform is a one-stop shop for crop information, informatics tools and services designed to propagate and support the application of modern approaches to crop breeding, particularly targeting developing countries.

We are trying to show breeders that their ‘system’ can be enhanced and streamlined if they enter data straight into a computer when they’re in the field and then upload them into an online database.” 

Gunning for a digital data revolution: The challenge of changing mindsets
Arllet’s greatest daily challenge is convincing crop breeders and other crop researchers that their research data are just as important as their core research work, and they should therefore dedicate as much time, energy and resources to managing data.

“Like everyone else, most plant breeders tend to be generally comfortable with the ‘systems’ that they and their predecessors have always used,” says Arllet. “For plant scientists, this often consists of recording results using pen and paper when they are out in the field, then coming back to their office and either filing those paper records as is, or re-entering the data into a basic Excel spreadsheet that is for their eyes only. They will then pull these data out when they want to compare them with their previous data.”

Arllet explains that this age-old system is not necessarily wrong, but it wastes valuable time, is insecure and limits the capacity of breeders to efficaciously reuse and also share their data with colleagues – a practice by which they would help each others’ work. “We are trying to show breeders that their ‘system’ can be enhanced and streamlined if they enter data straight into a computer when they’re in the field and then upload them into an online database,” she says.

Walking with giants…” 

Dealing with data: maximising efficiency, security, value and sharing
“These data can then be better secured and managed for their benefit and that of other researchers doing similar or related work, in essence increasing their working capacity. They would also have access to the most current analytical tools to verify their results and do their research more efficiently.”

Arllet explains that such improved systems have been in place for decades in the developed world, particularly within the private sector but not as prevalent in the developing world or public sector. This is largely attributable to the high cost of the equipment and informatics tools, and a lack of personnel with the appropriate skills to make use of the tools.

Through a collaborative effort bringing together a wide array of partners, with funding primarily from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, supplemented by the European Commission and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, IBP is working to overcome some of these barriers. With the release of the Integrated Breeding (IB) FieldBook, the foundational informatics tool for the proposed system, Arllet believes a giant step has been made towards achieving this objective.

Breeders will be able to use it to plan their trials from start to finish”

What is the IB FieldBook?
The IB FieldBook is a user-friendly computer program that facilitates the design of field trials and produces electronic field-books, field plans and labels. It collects together – in a single application – all the basic tools that a plant breeder requires for these diverse but intertwined functions.

“Breeders will be able to use it to plan their trials from start to finish,” says Arllet. “This is important as it will, for example, keep track of all the identities of plant crosses, minimising the chance that the breeder, or assisting technician, will record the data incorrectly, while emphasising the importance of accurate data for correct crop-breeding decisions.”

Live demonstration: Taking the tablet through the paces at a training workshop for research technicians in January 2012. The regional workshop for West Africa (in French and English) was hosted by L’Institut d’économie rurale (IER) at Sotuba, Mali. A similar workshop was held in Ethiopia in English for the Eastern and Southern Africa region.

She and her team have been conducting training workshops on data management for breeders at which they demonstrate the IB FieldBook and the use of handheld electronic devices (such as tablets) for data collection, which breeders can conveniently take to the field with them and directly enter the phenotyping data they would normally capture in paper field-books.

Tablets and feedback
“The training has been challenging but fun,” says Arllet. “When we present the breeders with a tablet at the start of the exercise, they get really excited. It takes a while for them to learn how to use it, but once they do, they see how this technology could save them time and reduce the risk of mistakes. It’s a little sad for them and for us though when we have to take the tablets back at the end of the exercise, as demand always outstrips supply. We have however distributed around 200 tablets to breeders, university academic staff, researchers and postgraduate students of plant breeding. Majority of the recipients are from Africa and Asia. And the good news is that,  as a result, some of the institutes and programmes the recipients come from have gone ahead to purchase more units for themselves.”

Arllet observes that the workshops have not only allowed her team to educate breeders and build awareness, but also to receive valuable feedback on how the IB FieldBook could be improved to make it even better, and learn what other tools breeders need. “Based on this feedback, we worked on the IB FieldBook version 4, which was released in June 2013, as well as on a number phenotypic and genotypic data management tools to incorporate into both the FieldBook and the primary crop databases.”

‘SHARP’ data – shareable, available, reusable and preservable. 

Left to right: Diarah Guindo (IER), Ardaly Abdou Ousseini (L’Institut national de la recherche agronomique du Niger, INRAN) and Aoua Maiga (IER) at the January 2012 training at IER Sotuba, Mali.

SHARP and secure data management
Plant breeders are collaborating more often than they used to, and also drawing much more on specialised experts for each stage of the crop variety development chain. These experts are able to verify the data to make sure they are correct, do their job quickly and pass the data onto the next expert, an economical resource- and time-efficient process. However, as Arllet explains, consistent and secure data management is key to the success of these collaborations.

For Arllet, data that are properly managed are ‘SHARP’shareable, available, reusable and preservable. “By collecting data in a consistent format, uploading them to a secure database with easily identifiable tags, and making them available to other researchers, the data will be more accessible to partners, enable reliable analysis and conclusions, be more likely to be reused, and most importantly, save time and money. For example, breeders who share their data on the IBP database will receive support from researchers outside of their own breeding programme and enlist the help of experts and specialists  they require for particular tasks,” says Arllet. “This includes access to, say, a molecular biologist in Europe or Asia for the breeder in Africa or America who may need that kind of specialist help, for example.”

Arllet and her team of four consultants are currently helping breeders from all around the world upload their historical research data into the central crop databases of the Integrated Breeding Platform, a massive task given the issues of trust, language barriers, slow internet connections, inadequate computer skills and the sheer volumes of the data. However, these are challenges that are becoming easier to handle with greater awareness and the enthusiasm that comes with that.

What next, and what difference will it make?
Adoption and broad use of the FieldBook will of course also make the process easier in the future, enabling a single step uploading of phenotypic data – hence setting breeders free to get on with their work without the wastefulness of having to enter and re-check the data multiple times.

“What it all means is that we will facilitate the more rapid and efficient development of higher-yielding  more stress-tolerant crops that can benefit the farmers and the people they feed,” says Arllet, “and that is the ultimate goal of a plant breeder’s work.”


See videos below: ‘ Masses of crop breeding information: How can it be handled?’ and “Why use IBP’s breeding and data management tools?“, which, in the view of one of our Australian partners, explains why IBP is particularly important for developing countries, and why they have a comparative advantage compared to the developed world.

Next video below:

PRIZE AND FUN! If you’ve survived this far, you deserve a prize, in the form of seeing Ms Portugal in party mode. To see what Arllet gets up to when she’s not crunching data, flip through this fun album

Dec 122013

Down memory lane with Masdiar Bustamam, from generation to generation

Masdiar Bustamam

In some circles, Masdiar Bustamam (pictured right) is a mother figure of molecular breeding in Indonesia. In a marathon career spanning 37 years as a horticulturist and agricultural researcher, she helped develop and nurture the practice at the Indonesian Center for Agricultural Biotechnology and Genetic Resources Research and Development (ICABIOGRAD).  Staying with the marathon metaphor, this quote from a celebrated middle- and long-distance Kenyan champion runner, Kipchoge Keino, is very apt: “This life we have is short, so let us leave a mark for people to remember.”

Back to Masdiar: having retired in early 2012, we were recently lucky enough to gain a rare insight into Masdiar’s life, and to witness the mark she has already made, by simply tagging along when she checked in on two of her ICABIOGRAD charges and mentees whose PhD studies were supported by GCP – Wening Enggarin and Joko Prasetiyono. At ICABIOGRAD, Wening and Joko have both taken the torch from Masdiar for GCP projects, as well as for other projects.

She was the best teacher for me … instilled in me a spirit to never lose hope in the research I’m doing – Joko

She was a great role model… Her persistence and positive can-do nature was exactly what I needed as a young researcher … to not just offer me assistance in my work but also in life and religion. For me, she has become a second mother  – Wening

… That project really helped us out a lot and we are grateful to GCP  for recognising the potential in us and supporting it – Masdiar

Here’s more of what Masdiar (and her charges) had to say as we tagged along, and chatted her up…

Tell us about your early life
I grew up and lived in West Java for most of my life. My father was a farmer and my mother a housewife. I was their first of five children.

I went to Andalas University in Padang and graduated with a Bachelor in Biology in 1974. After graduating, I worked as a staff researcher at a local horticulture research institute focusing on pests and diseases, particularly fungi in tomato soils. I was lucky early in my career to have opportunities to visit research institutes in The Netherlands, Japan and USA, all of which enhanced my skills. While in USA, I completed my Masters in rice blast disease – a fungus-related disease, which severely hampers rice yields in Indonesia, and all around the world.

After my time in USA, I accepted a position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in The Philippines. This was the start of the second phase of my career, in which I began to focus on molecular biology. When I returned from The Philippines, I realised that we needed to improve our capacity to use molecular markers for breeding, which led me to take a job at ICABIOGRAD.

Setting up a lab – GCP lends a hand
When I first started at ICABIOGRAD we had empty benches. It took a lot of time and money to fill them with the equipment we have today. Rebecca Nelson from Cornell University in USA provided us with a lot of support in getting us started. We were involved in one of her GCP projects for two years working on blast resistance in rice.

We were also working on another GCP project led by Abdelbagi Ismail studying phosphorus-deficiency tolerance in rice too, dubbed the Pup1 project. Joko was actually my PhD student for that project and did a lot of the work.

Selecting Pup1 lines in farmers' fields in Sukabumi, West Java, in 2010. L–R: Masdiar Bustamam, Tintin Suhartini and Ida Hanarida Sumantri.

Selecting Pup1 lines in farmers’ fields in Sukabumi, West Java, in 2010. L–R: Masdiar Bustamam, Tintin Suhartini and Ida Hanarida Sumantri.

Both Rebecca and Adbdelbagi helped me draft a proposal to GCP in 2007 for a project to enhance our capacity in phenotyping and molecular analysis to develop elite rice lines suitable for Indonesia’s upland regions. We had the understanding to do the science, but needed to enhance our facilities to carry it out.

That project really helped us out a lot and we are grateful to GCP  for recognising the potential in us and supporting it.”

GCP recognised the need for such a project as many of Indonesia’s brightest researchers were leaving the country because of the lack of suitable facilities, and so funded the two-year ICABIOGRAD-defined capacity-building project. The grant covered – among other areas – intensive residential staff training at IRRI; PhD student support, which allowed Wening to complete her PhD; infrastructure such as a moist room, temperature-controlled centrifuge apparatus, computers and appropriate specialised software; and blast and inoculation rooms.

Writer’s note: The tailor-made grantee-driven capacity-building project above was a cornerstone of  GCP Phase I’s capacity-building strategy, and was dubbed ‘Capacity building à la carte’. With this historical note, we take an interlude here, to tour the facilities Masdiar has mentioned above.

Our first stop is the Rice Blast Nursery…

....Front view...

….Front view…

...side view...

…side view…









... and a close-up on the sign in the side view.

… and a close-up on the sign in the side view.


Next, we visit the Inoculation and Moist Rooms…


Inoculation and Moist Rooms

Inoculation and Moist Rooms…



…and a close-up on the sign at the front.








After our tour of the facilities, Masdiar resumes her story: “That project really helped us out a lot and we are grateful to GCP  for recognising the potential in us and supporting it so that researchers like Wening bloom and blossom, now and into the future,” says Masdiar glowingly of one of her mentees and successors.

I’m proud of how they have matured and I’m really looking forward to when they and their teams produce new rice varieties, from the facilities I helped establish, that will help the farmers…I sacrificed what I enjoyed doing for a challenge whose benefits I recognised for my country.”

Mission-driven researcher, nurturer and mentor, all rolled into one
For Masdiar, it wasn’t work, but rather a passion and a hobby. “Throughout my career, I always enjoyed research, especially in plant pathogens,” she remembers. “Working with biotechnology was difficult because I didn’t have a background in the area. I sacrificed what I enjoyed doing for a challenge whose benefits I recognised for my country.”


From generation to generation: Masdiar (2L) drops in on her charges and torch-bearers at ICABIOGRAD’s Molecular Biotechnology Lab. L–R: Wening Enggarini, Masdiar Bustamam, Tasliah Zulkarnaeni, Ahmad Dadang and Reflinur Basyirin.

In the later half of her career, Masdiar recollects how she enjoyed training and mentoring younger researchers like Joko and Wening. “I’m proud of how they have matured and I’m really looking forward to when they and their teams produce new rice varieties, from the facilities I helped establish, that will help the farmers.”

Both Joko and Wening attest that Masdiar’s support and supervision were vital for their professional development and consequent career advancement. “She was the best teacher for me. She taught me how to manage a project, how to forge international collaborations, and how to write a good publication,” remembers Joko. “She also instilled in me a spirit to never lose hope in the research I’m doing.”

“She was a great role model for me!” exclaims Wening proudly. “Her persistence and positive can-do nature was exactly what I needed as a young researcher who was just starting a career. Even more so was her ability to take time out of her busy day to not just offer me assistance in my work but also in life and religion. For me, she has become a second mother  in this life. I’m blessed to be so lucky!”

Clearly, Masdiar has made her mark, leaving a cross-generational living legacy in molecular breeding embodied in these young researchers.


  • Masdiar’s project report, with a picture of the blast nursery under construction (p 156 in this PDF)
  • Photo-story on Facebook
  • Rebecca Nelson’s project, Targeted discovery of superior disease QTL alleles in the maize and rice genomes (p 16 in this PDF)
  • GCP’s capacity building


Dec 212012

I’ve always enjoyed my job, particularly teaching students and young researchers, but this project has made me think about how I can do more practical science.” – Zeba Seraj, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Professor, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh

Zeba Seraj

Growing up with a botanist as a father, Zeba Seraj was nurtured to look at plants in a scientific light. But at one stage in her life, she took a different fork on the road: she was more interested in rat livers and cow eyes, before becoming a ‘late bloomer’ in applied science and molecular plant breeding, which is her current niche.

Taking that fork: rats seduced, cows made eyes, but both lost…
Having completed her Undergraduate and Master’s in Biochemistry at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, during the 70s and 80s, she moved to Scotland for a PhD at the University of Glasgow. After being persuaded that molecular biology and recombinant DNA technology were not likely to be too different in animals and plants, she focused on the separation of nuclear proteins involved in post-transcriptional processing in the rat liver system.

“I then went on to work as a postdoc at the University of Liverpool, UK, for 18 months, where I worked on a bovine retina cDNA [complementary DNA] library,” Zeba recalls. “I was exposed to a number of recombinant DNA techniques and was pleasantly surprised to find DNA much easier to work with compared to proteins! I enjoyed it, but when I returned to the Bangladesh, there was no work in that field, so I turned to plants.”

The rise of rice, propelled by ‘Petrra’ project and petri dish
Back at her old University, one of Zeba’s first projects was working on salt tolerance in rice which allowed her to set up plant tissue culture facilities and establish a modest molecular biology laboratory. Zeba thereafter worked with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) on the Petrra project (poverty elimination through rice research assistance). The project was funded by the Department for International Development, UK. Meanwhile, she also spent a couple of months in the laboratory of the illustrious Dr John Bennett at IRRI, learning the latest technology in DNA markers and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology. This inital work would, in a way, lead her to GCP.

Meeting GCP, and banking on potential
Zeba joined the GCP community in 2005, working on the rice Saltol (salt tolerance) project. She was a focal collaborator in Bangladesh for this IRRI-led project that aimed to revitalise marginal ricelands by discovering and breeding into popular rice varieties ‘survival’ genes to enable rice to not only survive but also thrive on saline or phosphorus-poor soils.

“We were introduced to the project through the Principal Investigator, Abdel Ismail,” recalls Zeba. “Our lab was not very modern, but we did have all the facilities to do marker work, as well as a firm grasp on the theory, so IRRI and GCP must have seen potential in us.”

 …doing the research helped me understand the practical application better… It was a real eye-opener.”

Transiting from theory to practice
After 15 years of working as an associate professor and professor at the University of Dhaka (DU), mainly nurturing young biochemists, Zeba was re-energised by the thought of working on such a practical project that would have a direct impact on her country’s food security, and on its farmers’ livelihoods.

In the background, genotyping in progress at the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Dhaka. In thef oreground, student– supervisor consultations. Pictured (left to right) are: Zeba I Seraj, Roman, Adnan, Sarwar, Debashis,Rabin, Dost, Mishu, Shamim and Rejbana.

Nearly one million hectares along the Bangladesh coast are affected by varying degrees of salinity which has severely limited the introduction of modern high-yielding rice varieties, as few of these are saline-tolerant. Given Bangladesh’s high population, farmers need as bountiful yields as possible, and minimum risk of failure.

“After reading and teaching theory for so long, it was really exciting to actually put it into practice and work towards a practical outcome,” says Zeba.

“Actually doing the research helped me understand the practical application better too. It was a real eye-opener.”

 Using molecular markers allowed us to at least halve the time it would take to release stress-tolerant rice.” 

Gaining time: the ‘miracles’ and ‘magic’ of molecular makers
Zeba’s lab was responsible for the molecular evaluation and selection of rice lines bred by BRRI for insertion of the genomic region containing Saltol (discovered to confer salt toleranceby the previous IRRI-led GCP-funded project).

Md Sazzadur Rahman of BRRI assesses progress on a salt-tolerant rice variety in the field.

“We collected leaf samples from the BRRI-bred lines which were a combination of popular rice landraces and a Saltol donor.” explains Zeba ‘Landraces’ is ‘breeder-speak’ for varieties grown by, and popular with, farmers, but not necessarily improved by selective scientific breeding. Zeba continues, “We then used molecular markers which would indicate the presence of the Saltol genomic region.”

“The information we gathered guided the breeders at BRRI to select rice plants with the Saltol region. Selected plants were then further analysed with markers, to maximise the presence of popular alleles,” she adds. Allele is one of two, or more, forms of a gene – the alternative form of a gene responsible for a trait producing different effects.

“Using molecular markers allowed us to at least halve the time it would take to release stress-tolerant rice,” Zeba reveals.

 I will be the happiest person on earth the day they release the new lines, knowing that I’d helped to make a difference.”

Seven years on, what next?
Zeba is grateful that she and her lab were active partners in GCP projects for seven consecutive years: first in the IRRI-led project in 2005 to 2009, then in a follow-up supplementary capacity-building DU-led project from 2010 to 2011, for which Zeba was the Principal Investigator.

Nirmal Sharma and Jamal emasculate the first backcross population of a crosscombination for a second backcross at BRRI

“I don’t think we could have done the work without the various GCP networks. Several times in the project we would lag behind and they’d offer us support to get us back on track,” says Zeba. “They also instilled in us the importance of proper data management, and we have now implemented their system to collect, store and report data for all of our projects. We also now have all the equipment and processes in place, meaning that we’re now able to accommodate similar projects, now and into the future.”

Personally Zeba feels the project has given her a new direction in her career that she’s keen to further explore. “I’ve always enjoyed my job, particularly teaching students and young researchers, but this project has made me think about how I can do more practical science,” confides Zeba.

As for the Saltol project, she is keeping a close eye on the application waiting for the news of high-yield salt-tolerant lines becoming accessible to all Bangladeshi rice farmers.

“I will be the happiest person on earth the day they release the new lines, knowing that I’d helped to make a difference.”


  • More on Zeba Seraj on page 40 here
  • The road behind us: read on the early days (2005/2006) of the rice salt-tolerance work:
    • on pages 36–39 here
    • on pages 28–30 here
    • on page 6 here
  • Profile: Abdel Ismail, Principal Investigator of the salt tolerance project


Nov 302012
Photo: IRRI

Sigrid Heuer

Meet Sigrid Heuer (pictured), a Molecular Biologist and Senior Scientist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Her lively and riveting story will take us from Africa through her native Europe and on to Asia, and finally Down Under to Australia.

Origins – the African chapter
Africa holds a special and soft spot in Sigrid’s love affair with science: it was while on this continent that she realised her calling in life as a scientist – linking people doing pure research on plant genes to help plants survive and even thrive in harsh environments, with people who want to apply that knowledge to breed crops that can change the lives of millions of farmers who constantly compromise with nature to make a living.

Photo: IRRI

Fieldwork: Sigrid at a field trial for rice phosphorus uptake.

“Working as a postdoc at the Africa Rice Center in Senegal was a real life-changing experience,” Sigrid recollects with great fondness. “It’s where I found my niche, using my background in theoretical science and applying it to developing crops that could overcome abiotic stresses, and in doing so, make a real impact on people’s lives.”

Rowing further down the river: from upstream to downstream science
Sigrid was born and raised in Hamburg, Germany. She remembers wanting to be a psychologist and didn’t consider science until a few years after finishing school. After completing a biology undergraduate at Phillips University, Marburg, Germany, she returned to her home city of Hamburg to complete a Masters and PhD in plant physiology and molecular biology respectively.

“Back then, I was really involved in upstream science, fascinated in the fine details without much consideration of how such research could benefit society,” says Sigrid. “I still enjoy this form of science and really do value its purpose, but putting it into practice and focusing on the impact that it can have is what really motivates me now.”

Moving to IRRI, and meeting Pup1 and GCP
After three years in Senegal, Sigrid moved to the Philippines to join IRRI in 2003, first as a consultant then as a part-time scientist. In these early years, she was working on several projects, one of which was the GCP-funded Pup1 (rice phosphorus uptake) project.

“The project sought to identify the genes associated with phosphorus uptake in rice lines that could tolerate phosphorus-deficient soils,” says Sigrid. “It was an interesting project in which I was able to use my background in molecular biology. Little by little, I got more and more involved in the Pup1 project and after a year I was asked by Matthias Wissuwa, who was leading the project at the time, if I wanted to take it over. It was a great opportunity which I jumped at, not knowing then how challenging it would prove.”

Pup1 was the first major project I had managed. It was a playground of sorts that allowed me to learn what I needed to know about managing a project – writing proposals and reports, managing budgets and people’s time, and everything else that comes with leading a team.

The ‘root’ and  ‘command post’ where it all happens: Sigrid in the office. For the benefit of our readers, we would have credited the young artist whose colourful work graces the background below the bookshelf, but we were too polite to pry and prise out the young talent’s name, having hogged too much of Sigrid’s time already!

Learning to lead – both work and play

Over the last seven years, Sigrid has been a Principal Investigator and joint leader of the project, which has given her latitude to mature professionally, and not just in science alone. “It’s been tough but personally fulfilling,” Sigrid says, with just a touch of exhaustion.

Pup1 was the first major project I had managed. It was a playground of sorts that allowed me to learn what I needed to know about managing a project – writing proposals and reports, managing budgets and people’s time, and everything else that comes with leading a team. I was really lucky to have Matthias’ help as well as the other experienced collaborators and networks. However, the main factor that made my job a lot less stressful, was the benefit of long-term funding and support from GCP. GCP was always there, supporting us and giving us confidence even when we weren’t sure we were going to succeed.”

Persistence pays: tangible products, plus publication in Nature
In August 2012, Sigrid and her team achieved what they had set out to do seven years ago, through what Sigrid puts down to sheer persistence: their discovery of the Pup1 gene was recognised by their scientific peers and published in the highly renowned journal,  Nature.

Sigrid (3rd left) at the lab with other colleagues in the phosphorus uptake team.

“Having our paper published is really something special and personally my greatest achievement to date,” says Sigrid, but she is also quick to add that it was a team achievement, and that the achievement was in itself humbling.

“It was a double reward for persisting with the research, and with getting it into Nature. We wanted it in Nature for several reasons. To raise awareness on phosphorus deficiency and phosphorus being a limited resource, especially in poorer countries; and to draw attention to how we do molecular breeding these days, which is a speedier, easier and cost-effective approach to developing crops that have the potential to alleviate such problems.”

Sigrid hopes the article will have a lasting impression on readers, and encourage funders to continue to support projects that have such impact on the lives of end-users.

What next? Technology transfer, transitions and torch smoothly passing on…
With the Pup1 gene now found, IRRI researchers are working with breeders from country-based breeding programmes around the world to help them understand the techniques to breed local varieties of rice that can grow in phosphorus-deficient soils. They are also collaborating with other projects that wish to use the Pup1 project as a case study for phosphorous deficiency tolerance in other crops like maize, sorghum, and wheat (see an example here, that includes partners from Africa and Latin America).

Sigrid sees this next stage as a perfect time to step down from the project: she plans to move to Adelaide, Australia at the end of 2012 to lead a new project that is looking at drought and nitrogen deficiency tolerance in wheat.

“Matthias passed the baton on to me, and now I get to pass the baton on to someone else, so it’s nice. And I’ll be sure to always be around to help them too.”


Sigrid’s presentation at the GCP General Research Meeting 2011



Sep 202012

Getting to the core of a world-favourite dessert by unravelling banana’s origin and genealogy

GCP has enabled us to lay a credible foundation, which gave us a leg-up in the intense competition that typifies the genome sequencing arena” – Angélique D’Hont, CIRAD researcher

‘A’ is also for Angélique, as you will see once you read on…

An ‘A’ to our banana team for ushering in a new era in banana genetics. But let soup precede dessert, and don’t let this worry you: stay with us because we’re still very much on the topic and focused on bananas, which offer the whole range from soup and starters, to main course and dessert, plus everything else in between, being central for the food security of more than 400 million people in the tropics: around a third each is produced in Africa, Asia-Pacific and Latin America, and the Caribbean. About 87  percent of all the bananas produced worldwide are grown by small-scale farmers.

Moving back then to soup for starters, we’re serving up our own unique blend of alphanumeric banana ‘soup’, spiced with ABCs, a pinch of 123s, plus a dash of alpha and omega. Curious about the ABCs? Look no further:‘C’ for getting to the core of ‘B’ for bananas, and an ‘A’ score for our ace genomics team that did it.

Read how GCP seeded … and succeeded, in helping open a new era in banana genetics. An achievement by itself, and an important milestone on the road to unlocking genetic diversity for the resource-poor, which is GCP’s raison d’être.

So get your travelling gear please, for time travel with a ‘midspace checkpoint’ in Malaysia.

We start in 2004, when GCP commissioned a survey of diversity with microsatellites (or SSRs, simple sequence repeats) for all mandate food crops in the CGIAR crop research Centres. The objective of that study was to make new genetic diversity from genebank accessions available to breeders.

The endpoint is opening new research avenues to incorporate genes for disease resistance, with the added bonus of an article published in Nature online on July 11 2012, entitled The banana (Musa acuminata) genome and the evolution of monocotyledonous plants.

It may not be quite as easy as the ABC and 123 that The Jacksons promise in song, but we promise you that the science is just as exciting, with practical implications for breeding hardy disease-resistant bananas. Onwards then to the first leg of this three-step journey!

(Prefer a shorter version of this story in pictures? We’ve got it! Choose your medium between Flickr and Facebook)

1) Let’s go Greek: the alpha and omega of it

Rewinding to the beginning

The proof of the pudding is in the eating: we imagine that Jean Christophe Glaszmann just has to be saying “Yummy!” as he samples this banana.

Start point, 2004: “At that time, several research groups had developed SSR markers for bananas, but there was no coordination and only sketchy germplasm studies,” recalls Jean Christophe Glaszmann (pictured), then the leader of what was GCP’s Subprogramme 1 (SP1) on Genetic Diversity on a joint appointment with CIRAD. He stepped down as SP1 Leader in March 2010, and is currently the Director of a multi-institutional research unit Genetic improvement and adaptation of Mediterranean and tropical plants (AGAP, by its French acronym) at France’s Centre de ccoopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement (CIRAD) in Montpellier.

Jean Christophe continues, “The reference studies had been conducted with RFLP* markers, a very useful tool but far too cumbersome for undertaking large surveys. We mobilised Bioversity International, CIRAD and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture for the project. The process took time, but delivered critical products.[*RFLP stands for restriction fragmented length polymorphism]

Fastforward to 2012, and gets just a little geeky…

Eight years down the road in 2012, the list of achievements is impressive, as evidenced by a suite of published papers which provide the details of the analysis of SSR diversity and describe how the data enabled the researchers to unravel the origin and genealogy of the most important dessert bananas. The origin of the predominant variety – Cavendish – suggested by the markers, involves two rounds of spontaneous hybridisation between three markedly differentiated subspecies. This scheme has been marvellously corroborated by linguistic patterns found in banana variety names as revealed in a paper published in 2011 in the proceedings of USA’s National Academy of Sciences.

But what else happened in between the start- and end-point? We now get to the really ‘sweet’ part of this bonanza for banana breeding!

It is now possible to conduct research to identify and incorporate genes for disease resistance within fertile populations that are close to the early progenitors, and then inter-cross them to re-establish sterility and obtain vigorous, disease-resistant and seedless progenies.

 2) Of bits, bananas, breeding and breadcrumbs

Threading all these bits together for breeding better bananas is akin to following a trail of breadcrumbs, in which GCP played an important facilitating role: where in the germplasm to undertake genetic recombination is one key; and then, how to expedite incorporation of disease resistance and how to control sterility – so as to first suppress it, then re-establish it – is another set of keys that are necessary for proficient breeding.

Hei Leung in the lab at IRRI.

In 2005, Hei Leung (pictured), then Leader of GCP’s Subprogramme 2 on Comparative Genomics (until June 2007) on a dual appointment with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), recognised that with GCP’s main focus being drought tolerance in crops, Musa (the banana and plantain botanical genus) was somewhat on the fringe. However, it was still important that GCP support the emergence of banana genomics.

Hei is currently Programme Leader of Genetic Diversity and Gene Discovery at IRRI. He remembers, “We had a highly motivated group of researchers willing to devote their efforts to Musa. Nicolas Roux at Bioversity was a passionate advocate for the partnership. The GCP community could offer a framework for novel interactions among banana-related actors and players working on other crops, such as rice. The team led by Takuji Sasaki of Japan’s National Institute of Agrobiological Science, which had vast experience in rice genome sequencing, added the scientific power. So, living up to its name as a Challenge Programme, GCP decided to take the gamble on banana genomics and help it fly.”

Angélique D’Hont, CIRAD researcher and lead author of the article published in ‘Nature’.

Through several projects, GCP helped consolidate Musa genomic resources, contributed to the establishment of medium-throughput DArT markers as well as the construction of the first saturated genetic map. Additional contributions included the first round of sequencing of large chromosome segments (BAC clones) and its comparison with the rice sequence and a detailed analysis of resistance gene analogues. All these findings have now been published in peer-reviewed journals. And while publication takes time, it still remains a high-premium benchmark for quality and validation of results, and for efficient sharing of information. It reinforces the value of collaboration, builds capacity and gives visibility to all partners, thereby providing potential new avenues for funding.

Such was the case with bananas: using a collaborative partnership framework established with the Global Musa Genomics Consortium, animated by Nicolas Roux and now chaired by Chris Town, the community developed a case for sequencing the genome. With the mentorship of Francis Quétier, contacts were made with various major players in genomics, which in the end formalised a project between France’s CIRAD and CEA–Genoscope, funded by the Agence Nationale de la Recherche and led by Angélique D’Hont (pictured) and Patrick Wincker.

GCP contributed DArT analysis for anchoring the sequence to the genetic map. But, as stressed by Angélique, CIRAD researcher and lead author of the Nature paper: “Above all, GCP has enabled us to lay a credible foundation, which gave us a leg-up in the intense competition that typifies the genome sequencing arena. We were delighted that France rolled the dice in our favour by funding this work.”

3) Musa musings on the road to and from Malaysia checkpoint

Three years down the road, the team published a description of the genome of a wild banana from Malaysia.

Jean Christophe communes with a Musa plant, perhaps musing “What’s your family history and when will you be fully grown?”

Let’s drill down to some technical facts and figures here: the Musa genome has some 520 million nucleotides distributed across 11 chromosomes, revealing traces of past duplications and bearing some 36,000 genes. While most genes derived from duplication tend to lose their function, some develop novel functions that are essential for evolution; bananas seem to have an outstanding range of transcription factors that could be involved in fruit maturity.

And while the road ahead remains long, we now have a good understanding of banana’s genetic diversity, we have genomic templates for functional studies (a whole-gene repertoire) as well as for structural studies (the chromosome arrangement in one subspecies) aimed at unraveling the genomic translocations that could control sterility in the species complex.

It is now possible to conduct research to identify and incorporate genes for disease resistance within fertile populations that are close to the early progenitors, and then inter-cross them to re-establish sterility and obtain vigorous, disease-resistant and seedless progenies.

This is undoubtedly an inspiring challenge towards unlocking the genetic diversity in this crop, which is central to food security for more than 400 million people in the tropics.



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

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