Jan 082015
Print Friendly

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

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

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

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

Sorghum rainbow_A Borrell

No, it’s not photo-shopped. This Australian sorghum-and-double-rainbows shot is from Supa Snappa, Andy Borrell, also a GCP sorghum Principal Investigator. See http://bit.ly/1tBAOMW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Oct 242014
Print Friendly

OAweek2014By Eloise Phipps

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

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

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

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

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

Opening up for Open Access Week

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

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

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

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

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

Cassava farmers in Vietnam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s good to talk: saying no to secrecy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sep 012014
Print Friendly

Scouring the planet for breeding solutions

Bindiganavile Vivek

Bindiganavile Vivek

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drough in Asia_Vivek slide_GRM 2013_w

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

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

AMDROUT Meeting Penang Dec2010_w

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

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

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

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

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

 Show and tell: posting and sharing dividends

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

AMDROUT trainees at Cambridge_w

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



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


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

Increasing connections, and further into the future

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

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

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

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


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

Aug 312014
Print Friendly

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

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

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

Rebecca Nelson

Rebecca Nelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masdiar Bustamam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Jul 232014
Print Friendly


DNA spiral

DNA spiral

Crop researchers including plant breeders across five continents are collaborating on several GCP projects to develop local varieties of sorghum, maize and rice, which can withstand phosphorus deficiency and aluminium toxicity – two of the most widespread constraints leading to poor crop productivity in acidic soils. These soils account for nearly half the world’s arable soils, with the problem particularly pronounced in the tropics, where few smallholder farmers can afford the costly farm inputs to mitigate the problems. Fortunately, science has a solution, working with nature and the plants’ own defences, and capitalising on cereal ‘family history’ from 65 million years ago. Read on in this riveting story related by scientists, that will carry you from USA to Africa and Asia with a critical stopover in Brazil and back again, so ….

… welcome to Brazil, where there is more going than the 2014 football World Cup! Turning from sports to matters cerebral and science, drive six hours northwest from Rio de Janeiro and you’ll arrive in Sete Lagoas, nerve centre of the EMBRAPA Maize and Sorghum Research Centre. EMBRAPA stands for Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária  ‒  in  English, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation.


Jurandir Magalhães

Jurandir Magalhães (pictured), or Jura as he prefers to be called, is a cereal molecular geneticist and principal scientist who’s been at EMBRAPA since 2002.

“EMBRAPA develops projects and research to produce, adapt and diffuse knowledge and technologies in maize and sorghum production by the efficient and rational use of natural resources,” Jura explains.

Such business is also GCP’s bread and butter. So when in 2004, Jura and his former PhD supervisor at Cornell University, Leon Kochian, submitted their first GCP project proposal to clone a major aluminium tolerance gene in sorghum they had been searching for, GCP approved the proposal.

“We were already in the process of cloning the AltSB gene,” remembers Jura, “So when this opportunity came along from GCP, we thought it would provide us with the appropriate conditions to carry this out and complete the work.”

Cloning the AltSB gene would prove to be one of the first steps in GCP’s foundation sorghum and maize projects, both of which seek to provide farmers in the developing world with crops that will not only survive but thrive in the acidic soils that make up more than half of the world’s arable soils (see map below).

More than half of world’s potentially arable soils are highly acidic.

More than half of world’s potentially arable soils are highly acidic.

… identifying the AltSB gene was a significant achievement which brought the project closer to their final objective, which is to breed aluminium-tolerant crops that will improve yields in harsh environments, in turn improving the quality of life for farmers.”

A star is born: identifying and cloning AltSB
For 30 years, Leon Kochian (pictured below) has combined lecturing and supervising duties at Cornell University and the United States Department of Agriculture, with his quest to understand the genetic and physiological mechanisms behind the ability of some cereals to withstand acidic soils. Leon is also the Product Delivery Coordinator for GCP’s Comparative Genomics Research Initiative.

Leon Kochian

Leon Kochian

Aluminium toxicity is associated with acidic soils and is the primary limitation on crop production for more than 30 percent of farmland in Southeast Asia and Latin America, and approximately 20 percent in East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and North America. Aluminium ions damage roots and impair their growth and function. This results in reduced nutrient and water uptake, which in turn depresses yield.

“These effects can be limited by applying lime to increase the soil’s pH. However, this isn’t a viable option for farmers in developing countries,” says Leon, who was the Principal Investigator for the premier AltSB project and is currently involved in several off-shoot projects.

Working on the understanding that grasses like barley and wheat use membrane transporters to insulate themselves against subsoil aluminium, Leon and Jura searched for a similar transporter in sorghum varieties that were known to tolerate aluminium.

“In wheat, when aluminium levels are high, these membrane transporters prompt organic acid release from the tip of the root,” explains Leon. “The organic acid binds with the aluminium ion, preventing it from entering the root. We found that in certain sorghum varieties, AltSB is the gene that encodes a specialised organic acid transport protein – SbMATE*  –  which mediates the release of citric acid. From cloning the gene, we found it is highly expressed in aluminium-tolerant sorghum varieties. We also found that the expression increases the longer the plant is exposed to high levels of aluminium.”

[*Editor’s note: different from the gene with the same name, hence not in italics]

Leon says identifying the AltSB gene and then cloning it was a significant achievement and it brought the project closer to their final objective, which he says is “to breed aluminium-tolerant crops that will improve yields in harsh environments, in turn improving the quality of life for farmers.”

This research was long and intensive, but it set a firm foundation for the work in GCP Phase II, which seeks to use what we have learnt in the laboratory and apply it to breed crops that are tolerant to biotic or abiotic stress such as aluminium toxicity and phosphorus deficiency.”

Comparative genomics: finding similar genes in different crops
Wheat, maize, sorghum and rice are all part of the Poaceae (grasses) family, evolving from a common grass ancestor 65 million years ago. Over this time they have become very different from each other. However, at a genetic level they still have a lot in common.

Over the last 20 years, genetic researchers all over the world have been mapping these cereals’ genomes. These maps are now being used by geneticists and plant breeders to identify similarities and differences between the genes of different cereal species. This process is termed comparative genomics and is a fundamental research theme for GCP research as part of its second phase.


Rajeev Varshney

“The objective during GCP Phase I was to study the genomes of important crops and identify genes conferring resistance or tolerance to biotic or abiotic stresses,” says Rajeev Varshney (pictured), Director, Center of Excellence in Genomics and Principal Scientist in applied genomics at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). “This research was long and intensive, but it set a firm foundation for the work in GCP Phase II, which seeks to use what we have learnt in the laboratory and apply it to breed crops that are tolerant to biotic or abiotic stress such as aluminium toxicity and phosphorus deficiency.”

Until August 2013, Rajeev had oversight on GCP’s comparative genomics research projects on aluminium tolerance and phosphorus deficiency is sorghum, maize and rice, as part of his GCP role as Leader of the Comparative and Applied Genomics Theme.

“Phosphorus deficiency and aluminium toxicity are soil problems that typically coincide in acidic soils,” says Rajeev. “They are two of the most critical constraints responsible for low crop productivity on acid soils worldwide. These projects are combining the aluminium tolerance work done by EMBRAPA and Cornell University with the phosphorus efficiency work done by IRRI [International Rice Research Institute] and JIRCAS [Japan International Research Centre for Agricultural Sciences] to first identify and validate similar aluminium-tolerance and phosphorus-efficient genes in sorghum, maize and rice, and then, secondly, breed crops with these combined improvements.”

These collaborations are really exciting! They make it possible to answer questions that we could not answer ourselves, or that we would have overlooked, were it not for the partnerships.”

When AltSB met Pup1
Having spent more than a decade identifying and cloning AltSB, Jura and Leon have recently turned their attention to identifying and cloning the genes responsible for phosphorus efficiency in sorghum. Luckily, they weren’t starting from scratch this time, as another GCP project on the other side of the world was well on the way to identifying a phosphorus-efficiency gene in rice.

Led by Matthias Wissuwa at JIRCAS and Sigrid Heuer at IRRI, the Asian base GCP project had identified a gene locus, which encoded a particular protein kinase that allowed varieties with this gene to grow successfully in low-phosphorous conditions. They termed the region of the rice genome where this gene resides as ‘phosphorus uptake 1’ or Pup1 as it is commonly referred to in short.

“In phosphorus-poor soils, this protein kinase instructs the plant to grow larger, longer roots, which are able to forage through more soil to absorb and store more nutrients,” explains Sigrid. “By having a larger root surface area, plants can explore a greater area in the soil and find more phosphorus than usual. It’s like having a larger sponge to absorb more water!”

Read more about the mechanics of Pup-1 and the evolution of the project.

Jura and Leon are working on the same theory as IRRI and JIRCAS, that larger and longer roots enhance phosphorus efficiency. They are identifying sorghum with these traits, using comparative genomics to identify a locus similar to Pup1 in these low-phosphorus-tolerant varieties, and then verify whether the genes at this locus are responsible for the trait.

“So far, the results are promising and we have evidence that Pup1 homologues may underlie a major QTL for phosphorous uptake in sorghum,” says Jura who is leading the project to identify and validate Pup1 and other phosphorus-efficiency QTLs in sorghum.  QTL stands for ‘quantitative trait locus’ which refers to stretches of DNA containing ‒ or linked to ‒ the genes responsible for a quantitative trait  “What we have to do now is to see if this carries over in the field, leading to enhanced phosphorus uptake and grain yield in low-phosphorus soils,” he adds.

Jura and Leon are also returning the favour to IRRI and JIRCAS and are collaborating with both institutes to identify and clone in rice similar genes to the AltSB gene in sorghum.

“These collaborations are really exciting! They make it possible to answer questions that we could not answer ourselves, or that we would have overlooked, were it not for the partnerships,” says Sigrid.

To make a difference in rural development, to truly contribute to improved food security through crop improvement and incomes for poor farmers, we knew that capacity development had to be a continuing cornerstone in our strategy.”

Building capacity in Africa
In GCP Phase II which is more application oriented, projects must have objectives that deliver products and build capacity in developing-world breeding programmes.

Jean-Marcel Ribaut

Jean-Marcel Ribaut

“The thought behind the latter requirement is that GCP is not going to be around after 2014 so we need to facilitate these country breeding programmes to take ownership of the science and products so they can continue it locally,” says Jean-Marcel Ribaut, GCP Director (pictured). “To make a difference in rural development, to truly contribute to improved food security through crop improvement and incomes for poor farmers, we knew that capacity development had to be a continuing cornerstone in our strategy.”

Back to Brazil: Jura says this requirement is not uncommon for EMBRAPA projects as the Brazilian government seeks to become a world leader in science and agriculture. “Before GCP started, we had been working with African partners for five to six years through the McKnight Project. It was great when GCP came along as we were able to continue these collaborations.”

Samuel Gudu

Samuel Gudu

One collaboration Jura was most pleased to continue was with his colleague and friend, Sam Gudu (pictured), from Moi University, Kenya. Sam has been collaborating with Jura and Leon on several GCP projects and is the only African Principal Investigator in the Comparative Genomics Research Initiative.

“Our relationship with EMBRAPA and Cornell University has been very fruitful,” says Sam. “We wouldn’t have been able to do as much as we have done without these collaborations or without our other international collaborators at IRRI, JIRCAS, ICRISAT or Niger’s National Institute of Agricultural Research [INRAN].”

Sam is currently working on several projects with these partners looking at validating the genes underlying major aluminium-tolerance and phosphorus-efficiency traits in local sorghum and maize varieties in Kenya, as well as establishing a molecular breeding programme.

“The molecular-marker work has been very interesting. We have selected the best phosphorus-efficient lines from Brazil and Kenya, and have crossed them with local varieties to produce several really good hybrids which we are currently field-testing in Kenya,” explains Sam. “Learning and using these new breeding techniques will enable us to select for and breed new varieties faster.”

Sam is also grateful to both EMBRAPA and Cornell University for hosting several PhD students as part of the project. “This has been a significant outcome as these PhD students are returning to Kenya with a far greater understanding of molecular breeding which they are sharing with us to advance our national breeding programme.”

We’ve used the knowledge that Jura’s and Leon’s AltSB projects have produced to discover and validate similar genes in maize…We identified Kenyan lines carrying the superior allele of ZmMATE …This work will also improve our understanding of what other mechanisms may be working in the Brazilian lines too.” 

‘Everyone’ benefits! Applying the AltSB gene to maize
Claudia Guimarães (pictured) is a maize geneticist at EMBRAPA. But unlike Jura, her interest lies in maize.


Claudia Guimarães

Working on the same comparative genomics principle used to identify Pup1 in sorghum, Claudia has been leading a GCP project replicating the sorghum aluminium tolerance work in maize.

“We’ve used the knowledge that Jura’s and Leon’s AltSBprojects have produced to discover and validate similar genes in maize,” explains Claudia. “From our mapping work we identified ZmMATE as the gene underlying a major aluminium tolerance QTL in maize. It has a similar sequence as the gene found in sorghum and it encodes a similar protein membrane transporter that is responsible for citrate extradition.”

A maize field at EMBRAPA. Maize on the left is aluminum-tolerant while the maize on the right is not.

A maize field at EMBRAPA. Maize on the left is aluminium-tolerant while the maize on the right is not.

Using molecular markers, Claudia and her team of researchers from EMBRAPA, Cornell University and Moi University have developed near-isogenic lines from Brazilian and Kenyan maize varieties that show aluminium tolerance, with ZmMATE present. From preliminary field tests, the Brazilian lines have had improved yields in acidic soils.

“We identified a few Kenyan lines carrying the superior allele of ZmMATE that can be used as donors to develop maize varieties with improved aluminium tolerance,” says Claudia.  “This work will also improve our understanding of what other mechanisms may be working in the Brazilian lines too.”

What has pleased Jura and other Principal Investigators the most is the leadership that African partners have taken in GCP projects.

Cherry on the cereal cake
With GCP coming to an end in December 2014, Jura is hopeful that his and other offshoot projects dealing with aluminium tolerance and phosphorus efficiency will deliver on what they set out to do.

“For me, the cherry on the cake for the aluminium-tolerance projects would be if we show that AltSB improves tolerance in acidic soils in Africa. If everything goes well, I think this will be possible as we have already developed molecular markers for AltSB.”

What has pleased Jura and other Principal Investigators the most is the leadership that African partners have taken in GCP projects.

“This has been a credit to them and all those involved to help build their capacity and encourage them to take the lead. I feel this will help sustain the projects into the future and one day help these developing countries produce varieties of sorghum and maize for their farmers that are able to yield just as well in acidic soils as they do in non-acidic soils.”

In the foreground, left to right, Leon, Jura and Sam in a maize field in Kenya.

In the foreground, left to right, Leon, Jura and Sam in a maize field at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), Kitale, in May 2010. They are examining crosses between Kenyan and Brazilian maize germplasm.




Mar 072014
Print Friendly
Women in science

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

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

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

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

UNESCO's Women in Science interactive tool

UNESCO’s Women in Science interactive tool

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

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

A blogpost fest to introduce our first special guests

Masdiar Bustamam

Masdiar Bustamam

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

Rebecca Nelson

Rebecca Nelson

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

Zeba Seraj

Zeba Seraj

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

Sigrid Heuer

Sigrid Heuer

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

Arllet Portugal

Arllet Portugal

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

Armin Bhuiya

Armin Bhuiya

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

Elizabeth Parkes

Elizabeth Parkes

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

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

Marie-Noëlle Ndjiondjop

Marie-Noëlle Ndjiondjop

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

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

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

Jonaliza Lanceras-Siangliw

Jonaliza Lanceras-Siangliw

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

Soraya Leal-Bertioli

Soraya Leal-Bertioli

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


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

Armin Bhuiya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Armin at work at the greenhouse.

Armin at work at the IRRI greenhouse in 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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



Feb 212014
Print Friendly


Steaming rice bowl

Steaming rice bowl

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

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

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

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

Photo: A Okono/GCP

Marie-Noëlle Ndjiondjop

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

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

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

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

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

Blooming rice in the field

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

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

Jonaliza Lanceras-Siangliw

Jonaliza Lanceras-Siangliw

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


Boonrat Jongdee

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


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

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


Dec 122013
Print Friendly

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


Jan 282013
Print Friendly

Today, Nature Biotechnology published the first-ever draft genome sequence map for a chickpea variety (PDF). The map will help researchers and breeders the world over to – through molecular breeding methods – deliver to growers higher-yielding more resilient varieties of chickpeas. 

Now that we have the rewards in a nutshell, and we choose to chew the chestnut of challenges later in the story, let’s next decipher the ‘Rajeevs’ part in the title: introducing Rajeev K Varshney, our very own Leader of Comparative and Applied Genomics, who also led and coordinated the transnational collaboration that developed this map.

We had the pleasure of talking to the gently-spoken Indian, a week before the release of the paper, asking him to recount how the project began, and the challenges and success they faced along the way. We’ll soon get to what Rajeev had to say, but first, a rapid rewind for backgrounding before Rajeev tells us the rest of the story…

… we have the ‘borders’ done… a good idea of what the picture is, and where the rest of the pieces will fit.”

Rajeev in the lab.

Reality check from the Genomics Gnome of Good News: two is but the twinkling of an eye…
The sequence map of the genotype CDC Frontier – a Canadian kabuli chickpea variety – took about two years to construct.”

No, the time taken is not the challenge since we’re yet to get to that part. In fact, in the world of genomics , two years is fairly fast, compared to, say, the time taken for sequencing other grain genomes such as maize, rice and wheat.

Rajeev attributes this to the interdisciplinary expertise of his team, most of whom are world leaders in their field, and to the enthusiasm and generosity of all partner institutes who funded the collaboration.

And with that background, on to our chat with Rajeev!

Sandwiches in the Sunshine State, and a search starts for the then unattainable holy grail

Q: Is it correct that this project started over sandwiches under a sunny sky in California?
Funnily enough, yes. We had the preliminary discussion during a lunchtime break at the fifth International Congress on Legume Genetics and Genomics back in July 2010. Doug Cook, from the University of California, Davis, and I, organised the meeting for select attendees to discuss the idea.

With daughter, Nanz. Rajeev in ‘Daddy-mode’, a galaxy away from genomic research.

Many researchers at the time had, or were toying with, sequencing parts of the chickpea genome to discover genes that helped plants tolerate salinity, drought, disease, and so on. The idea of mapping the whole genome, however, was thought to be unachievable given the cost and resources required. What Doug and I proposed to the 10-odd senior researchers that day was that we form an alliance to pool together our knowledge, funds and resources.

When we returned to our home institutes, we all approached our institutes or funding agencies in respective countries, to propose they consider funding the collaborative project. To be honest, this was probably the most challenging task of the project, as it often is with other projects, as they had a hard time recognising the benefits. However, we finally got there, and with the help of more than 20 institutes from North and Central America, Asia, Australia and Europe, we have successfully assembled 74 percent of the genome within two years.

Pieces fall into place for mix-and-match combinations

Now, you may say that 74 percent doesn’t equal the whole genome, but it does provide us with a map and pointers we’d never had before. Imagine doing a jigsaw without a picture to guide you – that’s how hard it was for us at the start. Now at least we have the ‘borders’ done, and we have a good idea of what the picture is, and where the rest of the pieces will fit.

Q:Why is mapping the chickpea genome so important?
Having the genome mapped is going to benefit all chickpea breeders, researchers and growers.

Say a conventional breeder wanted to create a new breed of chickpeas with drought tolerance. They would cross a domesticated, high-yielding variety of chickpeas, with a variety that tolerates dry conditions – most likely, lower-yielding – and then grow the progeny in the field. They wait for these progenies to grow, then visually select the best lines and make crosses with these. They keep doing this process over and over again for six to seven years until they’ve generated a new variety with the desired trait.

Different breed, mould and mode

Molecular breeders do it differently: instead of selecting the lines by visual inspection, they select lines based on their genes. This means they can correctly trace whether the progeny has received the genes which help the plant tolerate drought and only grow, test and cross with these plants, almost halving the time it would take through conventional methods.

With the map, researchers will be able to more rapidly identify genes of interest, and work with breeders to select for plants that display the favourable traits of these genes, whether this be for drought tolerance, pest resistance or for any other trait they are interested in.

Q: Good for researchers and breeders, but how is that going to benefit growers though?
Knowing which plant is more tolerant of drought from the start of the breeding process is going to significantly reduce the time it takes for breeders to develop these types of chickpea cultivars. So, growers will have new breeds of higher-yielding more resilient chickpeas available sooner.

Ethiopian farmer, Temegnush, and her chickpea harvest.

Remember also that chickpeas are a very important crop for smallholders in the resource-poor harsh environments of sub-Saharan Africa, India and Southeast Asia. Not only do they grow it for food and to replenish soil nitrogen, they also export to India, the world’s largest consumer of chickpeas. Most of these farmers would be lucky to harvest one tonne per hectare, so any yield advantage means extra income.

This point is particularly relevant for GCP’s goal, which is to improve the livelihoods of such farmers.

Q: This was one of the largest collaborative projects you’ve coordinated in your relatively short career. What was the most challenging aspect?
Short answer is….many!  With it being a collaborative project, bringing together researchers from all around the world, it was always difficult to coordinate suitable times for Skype and phone meetings.

Personally though, my biggest challenge was trying to coordinate so many esteemed researchers. We all had great ideas and we all thought each of our ideas was the right one. I had to resolve all issues amicably and find a solution to move forward.

Luckily I have surrounded myself over the years with some good colleagues to whom I’ve always been able to turn to discuss any problems. Jean-Marcel Ribaut, who is the Director of GCP, was one particular colleague to whom I often turned to for advice, given his experience with coordinating all of GCP’s collaborative interdisciplinary projects. He also helped source much-needed funds and suggested several useful partnerships, which were vital in carrying out the project.

My boss at ICRISAT, William Dar, the Director General, has always been very supportive, and time and again went out of his way to make sure I had the funds, capacity and sanity to keep the project going! I am deeply indebted to him.

The future

Q: How will the research continue?
Researchers and breeders will be able to customise the genome map to fit their particular purposes. Most will be interested in using it to develop molecular markers, which breeders can use to highlight specific genes of interest for molecular breeding. As I mentioned earlier, this could realistically halve the time it takes to breed new varieties from six to10 years to four to five years.

One outcome of the project, which I’m particularly interested in exploring further, relates to chickpea diversity. When we compared the 90 chickpea genomes, we realised that that diversity in the elite varieties was very low, meaning they all had very similar alleles (form of genes).

This has come about because over the years, breeders and growers have continually chosen only a handful of chickpea varieties to continually breed with. This is because these breeds tend to produce higher yields, something which all growers want.

The drawback of this, however, is that if all the popular breeds are too similar, then they could all be susceptible to a particular disease. If this particular disease were to strike, then chickpeas could be wiped out – globally.

So this map will be a valuable tool to use to enhance genetic diversity in the elite gene pool, thus safeguarding the world’s supply of chickpeas.



cheap ghd australia