Jan 082015

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

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

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

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

Sorghum rainbow_A Borrell

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

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.


Jul 232014


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.




cheap ghd australia