Jan 072015

Beyond chickpeas to embrace beans, chickpeas, groundnuts and pigeonpeas

Paul_w2As a scientist who comes from the dessicated drylands of the unforgiving Kerio Valley, where severe drought can mean loss of life through loss of food and animals, what comes first is food security… I could start to give something back to the community… It’s been a dream finally coming true.” – Paul Kimurto, Senior Lecturer and Professor in Crop Physiology and Breeding, Egerton University, Kenya

As a son of peasant farmers growing up in a humble home in the Rift Valley of Kenya, agriculture was, for Paul Kimurto (pictured above), not merely a vocation but a way of life: “Coming from a pastoral community, I used to take care of the cattle and other animals for my father. In my community livestock is key, as is farming of food crops such as maize, beans and finger millet.”

Covering some six kilometres each day by foot to bolster this invaluable home education with rural school, an affiliation and ever-blossoming passion for agriculture soon led him to Kenya’s Egerton University.

There, Paul excelled throughout his undergraduate course in Agricultural Sciences, and was thus hand-picked by his professors to proceed to a Master’s degree in Crop Sciences at the self-same university, before going on to obtain a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) scholarship to undertake a ‘sandwich’ PhD in Plant Physiology and Crop Breeding at Egerton University and the Leibniz Institute for AgriculturalEngineering (ATB) in Berlin, Germany.

… what comes first is food security… offering alternative drought-tolerant crops… is a dream finally coming true!…  GCP turned out to be one of the best and biggest relationships and collaborations we’ve had.”

Local action, global interaction
With his freshly minted PhD, Paul returned to Egerton’s faculty staff and steadily climbed the ranks to his current position as Professor and Senior Lecturer in Crop Physiology and Breeding at Egerton’s Crop Sciences Department. Yet for Paul, motivating this professional ascent throughout has been one fundamental factor:  “As a scientist who comes from a dryland area of Kerio valley, where severe drought can mean loss of food and animals, what comes first is food security,” Paul explains. “Throughout the course of my time at Egerton, as I began to understand how to develop and evaluate core crop varieties, I could start to give something back to the community, by offering alternative drought-tolerant crops like chickpeas, pigeonpeas, groundnuts and finger millet that provide farmers and their families with food security. It’s been a dream finally coming true.”

And thus one of academia’s true young-guns was forged: with an insatiable thirst for moving his discipline forward by seeking out innovative solutions to real problems on the ground, Paul focused on casting his net wide and enhancing manpower through effective collaborations, having already established fruitful working relationships with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the (then) Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in earlier collaborative projects on dryland crops in Kenya. It was this strategy that paved the way towards teaming up with GCP, when, in 2008, Paul and his team were commissioned to lead the chickpea work in Kenya for the GCP Tropical Legumes I project (TLI), with local efforts being supported by colleagues at ICRISAT, and friends down the road at KARI undertaking the bean work of the project. Climbing aboard the GCP ship, Paul reveals, was a move worth making: “Our initial engagement with GCP started out as a small idea, but in fact, GCP turned out to be one of the best and biggest relationships and collaborations we’ve had.”

…GCP is people-oriented, and people-driven” 

Power to the people!
The success behind this happy marriage, Paul believes, is really quite simple: “The big difference with GCP is that it is people-oriented, and people-driven,” Paul observes, continuing: “GCP is building individuals: people with ideas become equipped to develop professionally.” Paul elaborates further: “I wasn’t very good at molecular breeding before, but now, my colleagues and I have been trained in molecular tools, genotyping, data management, and in the application of molecular tools in the improvement of chickpeas through GCP’s Integrated Breeding Multiyear Course. This has opened up opportunities for our local chickpea research community and beyond, which, without GCP’s support, would not have been possible for us as a developing-country institution.”

Inspecting maturity, Koibatek FTC, Bomet_R Mulwa_Sep'12_w

Inspecting pod maturity with farmers at Koibatek Farmers Training Centre in Eldama Ravine Division, Baringo County, Kenya, in September 2012. Paul is on the extreme right.

Passionate about his teaching and research work, it’s a journey of discovery Paul is excited to have shares with others: “My co-workers and PhD students have all benefitted. Technicians have been trained abroad. All my colleagues have a story to tell,” he says. And whilst these stories may range from examples of access to training, infrastructure or genomic resources, the common thread throughout is one of self-empowerment and the new-found ability to move forward as a team: “Thanks to our involvement with the GCP’s Genotyping Support Service, we now know how to send plant DNA to the some of the world’s best labs and to analyse the results, as well as to plan for the costs. With training in how to prepare the fields, and infrastructure such as irrigation systems and resources such as tablets, which help us to take data in the field more precisely, we are now generating accurate research results leading to high-quality data.”

The links we’ve established have been tremendous, and we think many of them should be long-lasting too: even without GCP

Teamwork, international connections and science with a strong sense of mission
Teaming up with other like-minded colleagues from crème de la crème institutions worldwide has also been vital, he explains: “The links we’ve established have been tremendous, and we think many of them should be long-lasting too: even without GCP, we should be able to sustain collaboration with KBioscience [now LGC Genomics] or ICRISAT for example, for genotyping or analysing our data.” He holds similar views towards GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP): “IBP is one of the ideas which we think, even after GCP’s exit in December 2014, will continue to support our breeding programmes. My colleagues and I consult IBP regularly for a range of aspects, from markers to protocols to germplasm and the helpdesk, as well as for contacts and content available via the IBP Communities of Practice.” Paul’s colleagues are Richard Mulwa, Alice Kosgei, Serah Songok, Moses Oyier, Paul Korir, Bernard Towett, Nancy Njogu and Lilian Samoei. Paul continues: “We’ve also been encouraging our regional partners to register on IBP – I believe colleagues across Eastern and Central Africa could benefit from this one-stop shop.”

Yet whilst talking animatedly about the greater sophistication and accuracy in his work granted as a result of new infrastructure and the wealth of molecular tools and techniques now available to him and his team, at no point do Paul’s attentions stray from the all-important bigger picture of food security and sustainable livelihoods for his local community: “When we started in 2008, chickpeas were known as a minor crop, with little economic value, and in the unfavoured cluster termed ‘orphan crops’ in research. Since intensifying our work on the crop through TLI, we have gradually seen chickpeas become, thanks to their relative resilience against drought, an important rotational crop after maize and wheat during the short rains in dry highlands of Rift valley and also in the harsh environments of the Kerio Valley and swathes of Eastern Kenya.”

This GCP-funded weather station is at Koibatek Farmers Training Centre, Longisa Division, Bomet County.

This GCP-funded weather station is at Koibatek Farmers Training Centre.

Having such a back-up in place can prove a vital lifeline to farmers, Paul explains, particularly during moments of crisis, citing the 2011–2012 outbreak of the maize lethal necrosis (MLN) disease which wiped out all the maize throughout Kenya’s  Bomet County, where Paul, Richard, Bernard and their team had been working on the chickpea reference set. Those farmers who had planted chickpeas – Paul recalls Toroto and Absalom as two such fortunate souls – were food-secure. Moreover, GCP support for infrastructure such as a weather station have helped farmers in Koibatek County to predict weather patterns and anticipate rainfall, whilst an irrigation system in the area is being used by the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture to develop improved seed varieties and pasture for farmers.

The science behind the scenes and the resultant products are of course not to be underestimated: in collaboration with ICRISAT, Paul and his team released four drought-resistant chickpea varieties in Kenya in 2012, with the self-same collaboration leading to the integration of at least four varieties of the crop using marker-assisted backcrossing, one of which is in the final stages and soon to be released for field testing. With GCP having contributed to the recent sequencing of the chickpea genome, Paul and his colleagues are now looking to up their game by possibly moving into work on biotic stresses in the crop such as diseases, an ambitious step which Paul feels confident can be realised through effective collaboration, with potential contenders for the mission including ICRISAT (for molecular markers), Ethiopia and Spain (for germplasm) and researchers at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) for germplasm. Paul first established contact with all of these partners during GCP meetings.

By coming together, pooling skills from biotechnology, agronomy, breeding, statistics and other disciplines, we are stronger as a unit and better equipped to offer solutions to African agriculture and to the current challenges we face.”

Links that flower, a roving eye, and the heat is on!
In the meantime, the fruits of other links established since joining the GCP family are already starting to blossom. For example, TLI products such as certified seeds of chickpea varieties being released in Kenya – and in particular the yet-to-be-released marker-assisted breeding chickpea lines which are currently under evaluation – caught the eye of George Birigwa, Senior Programme Officer at the Program for Africa’s Seed Systems (PASS) initiative of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which is now supporting the work being undertaken by Paul and his team through the Egerton Seed Unit and Variety Development Centre (of which Paul is currently Director) at the Agro-Based Science Park.

Yet whilst Paul’s love affair with chickpeas has evidently been going from strength to strength, he has also enjoyed a healthy courtship with research in other legumes: by engaging in a Pan-African Bean Research Alliance (PABRA) bean project coordinated by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Paul and his team were able to release and commercialise three bean varieties which are currently in farmers’ fields in Kenya.


Paul (left) in the field. The crop is chickpeas of course!

With so many pots on the boil, the heat is certainly on in Paul’s research kitchen, yet he continues to navigate such daily challenges with characteristic aplomb. As a proven leader of change in his community and a ‘ can-do, make-it-happen’ kind of guy, he is driving research forward to ensure that both his school and discipline remain fresh and relevant – and he’s taking his colleagues, students and local community along with him every step of  the way.

Indeed, rallying the troops for the greater good is an achievement he values dearly: “By coming together, pooling skills from biotechnology, agronomy, breeding, statistics and other disciplines, we are stronger as a unit and better equipped to offer solutions to African agriculture and to the current challenges we face,” he affirms. This is a crusade he has no plans to abandon any time soon, as revealed when quizzed on his future aspirations and career plans: “My aim is to continue nurturing my current achievements, and to work harder to improve my abilities and provide opportunities for my institution, colleagues, students, friends and people within the region.”

With the chickpea research community thriving, resulting in concrete food-security alternatives, we raise a toast to Paul Kimurto and his chickpea champions!



May 302014
Rogério Chiulele

Rogério Chiulele


Today, we travel the Milky Way on a voyage to Mozambique. Our man along the Milky Way is Rogério Marcos Chiulele (pictured), a lecturer at Mozambique’s Universidade Eduardo Mondlane’s Crop Science Department. He is also the lead scientist for cowpea research in Mozambique for the Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project. This gives Rogério a crucial tri-focal down-to-earth and away-from-the-clouds perspective on cowpea pedagogy, research and development. It is through this pragmatic triple-lens prism that Rogerio speaks to us today, once he’s captained us safely back from the stars to Planet Earth, Southeast Africa. After the protein and profit, next stop for him and team is ridding cowpeas of pod-sucking pests, among other things slated for the future. But back from the future to the present and its rooted realities…Problems, yes, but also lots of good scores, plus a deft sleight of hand that are bound to have you starry-eyed, we bet.

…cowpeas rank fourth as the most cultivated crop…”

Q: Tell us about Mozambique and cowpeas: are they important?

The devastating effects of nematodes on cowpea roots.

The devastating effects of nematodes on cowpea roots.

In Mozambique, cowpeas are an important source of food, for both protein and profit, particularly for the resource-poor households that benefit from cowpea income and nutrition. In terms of cultivation, cowpeas rank fourth as the most cultivated crop after maize, cassava and groundnuts, accounting for about 9 percent of the total cultivated area, and estimated at nearly four million hectares of smallholder farms. The crop is produced for grain and leaves, mostly for household consumption but it is becoming increasingly important as a supplement for household income.

But while its potential for food, protein and income is recognised, the realisation of such potential is still limited by drought due to irregular and insufficient rain; affliction by pests such as aphids, flower thrips and nematodes; diseases such as cowpea aphid mosaic virus and cowpea golden mosaic virus; and cultivation of low-yielding and non-improved varieties.

…we backcross to varieties with traits that farmers prefer…”

Q: And on cowpea research and breeding?
Since 2008, Universidade Eduardo Mondlane [UEM] established a cowpea-breeding programme for addressing some of the limiting constraints affecting cowpea production and productivity. This has been possible through collaboration with different funding institutions such as the Generation Challenge Programme.

Photo: UEM

2008: Screening of the 300 genotypes.

That same year [2008], a UEM research team that I coordinate qualified for a GCP capacity-building à la carte grant. In this project, we screened 300 Mozambican cowpea lines for drought tolerance. From these, we identified 84 genotypes that were either high-yielding or drought-tolerant. We further evaluated the 84 genotypes for another three seasons in two locations. From the 84, we identified six genotypes that not only had the two sought-after traits, but were also adapted to different environments.

In 2010, the UEM team joined the TLI project. For the six pre-identified genotypes, the UEM breeding programme is using marker-assisted recurrent selection [MARS] and marker-assisted backcrossing [MABC], combining drought tolerance and resistance to major biotic stresses occurring in Mozambique. In MABC, we are conducting a backcross to varieties with traits that farmers prefer, which includes aspects such as large seeds, early maturity and high leaf production.

…we conducted a farmers’ participatory varietal selection to glean farmers’ perceptions and preferences on cowpea varieties and traits…”

Q: What is the main focus in your work, and how and when do farmers come in?
The breeding work conducted by UEM is targeting all Mozambican agroecologies, but with particular focus on southern Mozambique which is drought-prone. In addition to drought, the area is plagued by many pests such as aphids, flower thrips, nematodes and pod-sucking pests. So, in addition to drought tolerance, we are conducting screening and selection for resistance to aphids, flower thrips and nematodes. In the near future, we will start screening for resistance to pod-sucking pests.

2009: field screening of the 84 genotypes in diff locations.

2009: Rogério during field screening of the 84 genotypes in different locations.

In 2009, we conducted a farmers’ participatory varietal selection to glean farmers’ perceptions and preferences on cowpea varieties and traits. From the study, six of the lines passed participatory variety selection with farmers, as they were large-seeded with good leaf production which provides additional food.

we hope to release three varieties in 2015…Our involvement with GCP has not only increased our exposure, but also brought along tangible benefits… I firmly believe black-eyed peas can really make a difference.”

Q: To what would you attribute the successes your team is scoring, and what are your goals for the future, besides screening for pod-sucking pests?
The success of the work that the Eduardo Mondlane team is doing is partly due to the collaboration and partnership with USA’s University of California, Riverside [UCR]. UCR sent us 60 lines from the GCP cowpea reference set* [Editorial note: see explanation at the bottom], which we evaluated for drought tolerance for four seasons in two locations – one with average rainfall and the other drought-prone. As these lines were already drought-tolerant, we tested them for adaptation to the local environment, and for high yield. From the set, we hope to release three varieties in 2015. In addition, for evaluating the different varieties, we also crossed the local varieties with black-eyed peas, which have a huge market appeal: local varieties fetch roughly half a US dollar per kilo, compared to black-eyed peas whose price is in the region of four to five US dollars.

2013: multilocation trials.

2013: multilocation trials.

Our involvement with GCP has not only increased our exposure, but also brought along tangible benefits. For example, previously, nothing was being done on drought tolerance for cowpeas. But now we receive and exchange material, for example, the black-eyed peas from UCR that we received through GCP, which are set to boost production and markets, thereby improving lives and livelihoods. Amongst the varieties we are proposing to release is one black-eye type. I firmly believe black-eyed peas can really make a difference.

In addition, besides funding a PhD for one of our researchers, Arsenio Ndeve, who is currently at UCR, the Generation Challenge Programme, contributed to improvement on storage and irrigation facilities. We purchased five deep freezers for seed storage and one irrigation pump. Presently, we have adequate storage facilities and we conduct trials even during the off-season, thanks to the irrigation pump provided by GCP.


And on that upbeat note even as the challenge ahead is immense, today’s chat with Rogério ends here. To both pod-sucking pests and all manner of plagues on cowpeas, beware, as thy days are numbered: it would seem that Rogério and team firmly say: “A pox on both your houses!”

*A ‘reference set’ is a sub-sample of existing germplasm collections that facilitates and enables access to existing crop diversity for desired traits, such as drought tolerance or resistance to disease or pests


May 122014


Omari Mponda

Omari Mponda

After getting a good grounding on the realities of groundnut research from Vincent, our next stop is East Africa, Tanzania, where we meet Omari Mponda (pictured). Omari is a Principal Agricultural Officer and plant breeder at Tanzania’s Agricultural Research Institute (ARI), Naliendele, and country groundnut research leader for the Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project, implemented through our Legumes Research Initiative.  Groundnut production in Tanzania is hampered by drought in the central region and by rosette and other foliar diseases in all regions. But all is not bleak, and there is a ray of hope: “We’ve been able to identify good groundnut-breeding material for Tanzania for both drought tolerance as well as disease resistance,” says Omari. Omari’s team are also now carrying their own crosses, and happy about it. Read on to find out why they are not labouring under the weight of the crosses they carry…

…we have already released five varieties…TLI’s major investment in Tanzania’s groundnut breeding has been the irrigation system… Frankly, we were not used to being so well-equipped!”

Q: How  did you go about identifying appropriate groundnut-breeding material for Tanzania?
A: We received 300 reference-set lines from ICRISAT [International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics], which we then genotyped over three years [2008– 2010] for both drought tolerance and disease resistance. After we identified the best varieties, these were advanced to TLII [TLI’s sister project] for participatory variety selection with farmers in 2011–2012, followed by seed multiplication. From our work with ICRISAT, we have already released five varieties.

Harvesting ref set collection at Naliendele_w

Harvesting the groundnut reference-set collection at Naliendele. A ‘reference set’ is a sub-sample of existing germplasm collections that facilitates and enables access to existing crop diversity for desired traits, such as drought tolerance or resistance to disease or pests.

ARI–Naliendele has also benefitted from both human and infrastructure capacity building. Our scientists and technicians were trained in drought phenotyping at ICRISAT Headquarters in India. One of our research assistants, Mashamba Philipo, benefitted from six-month training, following which he advanced to an MSc specialising in drought phenotpying using molecular breeding. In his work, he is now using drought germplasm received from ICRISAT. In terms of laboratory and field infrastructure, the station got irrigation equipment to optimise drought-phenotyping trials. Precision phenotyping and accurate phenotypic data are indispensable for effective molecular breeding. To facilitate this, ARI–Naliendele benefitted from computers, measuring scales, laboratory ware and a portable weather station, all in a bid to assure good information on phenotyping. But by far, TLI’s major investment in Tanzania’s groundnut breeding has been the irrigation system which is about to be completed. This will be very useful as we enter TLIII for drought phenotyping.


For us, this is a big achievement to be able to do national crosses. Previously, we relied on ICRISAT…we are advancing to a functional breeding programme in Tanzania… gains made are not only sustainable, but also give us independence and autonomy to operate..We developing-country scientists are used to applied research and conventional breeding, but we now see the value and the need for adjusting ourselves to understand the use of molecular markers in groundnut breeding.”

Omari (right), with Hannibal Muhtar (left), who was contracted by GCP to implement infrastructure improvement for ARI Naliendele. See http://bit.ly/1hriGRp

Flashback to 2010: Omari (right), with Hannibal Muhtar (left), who was contracted by GCP to implement infrastructure improvement for ARI Naliendele, and other institutes. See http://bit.ly/1hriGRp

Q: What difference has participating in TLI made?
A: Frankly, we were not used to being so well-equipped, neither with dealing with such a large volume as 300 lines! But we filtered down and selected the well-performing lines which had the desired traits, and we built on these good lines. The equipment purchased through the project not only helped us with the actual phenotyping and being able to accurately confirm selected lines, but also made it possible for us to conduct off-season trials.

We’re learning hybridisation skills so that we can use TLI donors to improve local varieties, and our technicians have been specifically trained in this area. For us, this is a big achievement to be able to do national crosses. Previously, we relied on ICRISAT doing the crosses for us, but we can now do our own crosses. The difference this makes is that we are advancing to a functional breeding programme in Tanzania, meaning the gains made are not only sustainable, but also give us independence and autonomy to operate. Consequently, we are coming up with other segregating material from what we’ve already obtained, depending on the trait of interest we are after.

Another big benefit is directly interacting with world-class scientists in the international arena through the GCP community and connections – top-rated experts not just from ICRISAT, but also from IITA, CIAT, EMBRAPA [Brazil], and China’s DNA Research Institute. We have learnt a lot from them, especially during our annual review meetings. We developing-country scientists are used to applied research and conventional breeding, but we now see the value and the need for adjusting ourselves to understand the use of molecular markers in groundnut breeding. We now look forward to TLIII where we expect to make impact by practically applying our knowledge to groundnut production in Tanzania.

Interesting! And this gets us squarely back to capacity building. What are your goals or aspirations in this area?
A: Let us not forget that TLI is implemented by the national programmes. In Africa, capacity building is critical, and people want to be trained. I would love to see fulltime scientists advance to PhD level in these areas which are a new way of doing business for us. I would love for us to have the capacity to adapt to our own environment for QTLs [quantitative trait loci], QTL mapping, and marker-assisted selection. Such capacity at national level would be very welcome. We also hope to link with advanced labs such as BecA [Biosciences eastern and southern Africa] for TLI activities, and to go beyond service provision with them so that our scientists can go to these labs and learn.

There should also be exchange visits between scientists for learning and sharing, to get up to date on the latest methods and technologies out there. For GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform [IBP], this would help IBP developers to design reality-based tools, and also to benefit from user input in refining the tools.


SLIDES by Omari on groundnut research and research data management in Tanzania


Apr 042014


Phil Roberts

Phil Roberts

Like its legume relatives, cowpeas belong to a cluster of crops that are still referred to in some spheres of the crop-breeding world as ‘orphan crops’. This, because they have largely been bypassed by the unprecedented advances that have propelled ‘bigger’ crops into the world of molecular breeding, endowed as they are with the genomic resources necessary. But as we shall hear from Phil Roberts (pictured), of the University of California–Riverside, USA, and also the cowpea research leader for the Tropical Legumes I Project (TLI), despite the prefix in the  name, this ‘little kid’ in the ‘breeding block’ called cowpeas is uncowed and unbowed, confidently striding into the world of modern crop breeding, right alongside the ‘big boys’! What more on this new kid on the block of modern molecular breeding? Phil’s at hand to fill us in…

Vigna the VIP that shrinks with the violets
But is no shrinking violet, by any means, as we shall see. Also known  as niébé in francophone Africa, and in USA as black-eyed peas (no relation to the musical group, however, hence no capitals!), this drought-tolerant ancient crop (Vigna unguiculata [L] Walp) originated in West Africa. It is highly efficient in fixing nitrogen in the unforgiving and dry sandy soils of the drier tropics. And that is not all. This modest VIP is not addicted to the limelight and is in fact outright lowly and ultra-social: like their fetching African counterpart in the flower family, the African violet, cowpeas will contentedly thrive under the canopy of others, blooming in the shade and growing alongside various cereal and root crops, without going suicidal for lack of limelight and being in the crowd. With such an easy-going personality, added to their adaptability, cowpeas have sprinted ahead to become the most important grain legume in sub-Saharan Africa for both subsistence and cash. But – as always – there are two sides to every story, and sadly, not all about cowpeas is stellar…

Improved varieties are urgently needed to narrow the gap between actual and potential yields… modern breeding techniques… can play a vital role”

A cowpea experimental plot at IITA.

A cowpea experimental plot at IITA.

What could be, and what molecular breeding has to do with it
Yields are low, only reaching a mere 10 to 30 percent of their potential, primarily because of insect- and disease-attack, sometimes further compounded by chronic drought in the desiccated drylands cowpeas generally call home. “Improved varieties are urgently needed to narrow the gap between actual and potential yields,” says Phil. The cowpea project he leads in TLI is implemented through GCP’s Legume Research Initiative. Phil adds, “Such varieties are particularly valuable on small farms, where costly agricultural inputs are not an option. Modern breeding techniques, resulting from the genomics revolution, can play a vital role in improving cowpea materials.”

He and his research team are therefore developing genomic resources that country-based breeding programmes can use. Target-country partners are Institut de l’Environnement et de Recherches Agricoles (INERA) in Burkina Faso; Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique; and Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles (ISRA) in Senegal. Other partners are the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) headquartered in Nigeria and USA’s Feed the Future Innovation Labs for Collaborative Research on Grain Legumes and for Climate Resilient Cowpeas.

It’s a lot easier and quicker, and certainly less hit-or-miss than traditional methods!… By eliminating some phenotyping steps and identifying plants carrying positive-trait alleles for use in crossing, they will also shorten the time needed to breed better-adapted cowpea varieties preferred by farmers and markets.”

Cowpea seller at Bodija Market, Ibadan, Nigeria.

Cowpea seller at Bodija Market, Ibadan, Nigeria.


On target, and multiplying the score
[First, a rapid lesson on plant-genetics jargon so we can continue our story uninterrupted: ‘QTLs’ stands for quantitative trait loci, a technical term in quantitative genetics to describe the locations where genetic variation is associated with variation in a quantitative trait. QTL analysis estimates how many genes control a particular trait. ‘Allele’ means an alternative form of a the same gene. Continuing with the story…]

The curved shape means that these cowpea pods are mature and ready for harvesting.

Culinary curves and curls: the curved shape means that these cowpea pods are mature and ripe for harvesting.

“We first verified 30 cowpea lines as sources of drought tolerance and pest resistance,” Phil recalls. “Using molecular markers, we can identify the genomic regions of the QTLs that are responsible for the desired target phenotype, and stack those QTLs to improve germplasm resistance to drought or pests. It’s a lot easier and quicker, and certainly less hit-or-miss than traditional methods! However, standing alone, QTLs are not the silver bullet in plant breeding. What happens is that QTL information complements visual selection. Moreover, QTL discovery must be based on accurate phenotyping information, which is the starting point, providing pointers on where to look within the cowpea genome. Molecular breeding can improve varieties for several traits in tandem,” suggests Phil. “Hence, farmers can expect a more rapid delivery of cowpea varieties that are not only higher-yielding, but also resistant to several stresses at once.”

And what are Phil and team doing to contribute to making this happen?

The genomic resources from Phase I – especially genotyping platforms and QTL knowledge – are being used in Phase II of the TLI Project to establish breeding paradigms, using molecular breeding approaches,” Phil reveals. He adds that these approaches include marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS) and marker assisted back-crossing (MABC). “These paradigms were tested in the cowpea target countries in Africa,” Phil continues. “By eliminating some phenotyping steps and identifying plants carrying positive-trait alleles for use in crossing, they will also shorten the time needed to breed better-adapted cowpea varieties preferred by farmers and markets.”

… best-yielding lines will be released as improved varieties… others will be used…as elite parents…”

Future work
What of the future? Phil fills us in: “The advanced breeding lines developed in TLI Phase II are now entering multi-location performance testing in the target African countries. It is expected that best-yielding lines will be released as improved varieties, while others will be used in the breeding programmes as elite parents for generating new breeding lines for cowpeas.”

Clearly then, the job is not yet done, as the ultimate goal is to deliver better cowpeas to farmers. But while this goal is yet to be attained and – realistically – can only be some more years down the road, it is also equally clear that Phil and his team have already chalked up remarkable achievements in the quest to improve cowpeas. They hope to continue pressing onwards and upwards in the proposed Tropical Legumes III Project, the anticipated successor to TLI and its twin project TLII – Tropical Legumes II.


Mar 312014
Vincent Vadez

Vincent Vadez

Today, we travel to yet another sun-kissed spot, leaving California behind but keeping it legumes. We land in Africa for some ground truths on groundnuts with Vincent Vadez (pictured), groundnut research leader for the Tropical Legumes I (TLI) Project. Vincent fills us in on facts and figures on groundnuts and Africa – a tale of ups and downs, triumphs and trials, but also of  ‘family’ alliances not feuds, and of problems, yes,  but also their present or potential solutions. On to the story then! Read on to find out why groundnuts are…

….A very mixed bag in Africa
Groundnuts (Arachis hypogaea L), also called peanuts, are a significant subsistence and food crop in sub-Saharan Africa. There, groundnuts are grown in practically every country, with the continent accounting for roughly a quarter of the world’s production. Despite this rosy African statistic, problems abound: for example, nearly half (40 percent) of the of the world’s total acreage for groundnuts is in Africa, which dramatically dims the 25 percent global production quota.

In Africa, groundnuts are typically cultivated in moderate rainfall areas across the continent, usually by women.

In Africa, groundnuts are typically cultivated in moderate rainfall areas across the continent, usually by women. (See editorial note* at the end of the story)

Clearly then, Africa’s yields are low, borne out by telling statistics which show African production at 950 kilos per hectare, in acute contrast to 1.8 tonnes per hectare in Asia.

…every year, yields worth about USD 500 million are lost”

What ails Africa’s production?
The main constraints hampering higher yields and quality in Africa are intermittent drought due to erratic rainfall, as well as terminal drought during maturation. And that is not all, because foliar (leaf) diseases such as the late leaf spot (LLS) or groundnut rosette are also taking their toll.  Economically speaking, every year, yields worth about USD 500 million are lost to drought, diseases and pests. Plus, the seeding rates for predominantly bushy groundnut types are low, and therefore insufficient to achieve optimal ground cover. Thus, genetic limitations meet and mingle with major agronomic shortcomings in the cultivation of groundnuts, making it…

…. A tough nut to crack
Groundnuts are mostly cultivated by impoverished farmers living in the semi-arid tropics where rainfall is both low and erratic.

Tough it may be for crop scientists, but clearly not too tough for these two youngsters shelling groundnuts at Mhperembe Market, Malawi.

. Tough it may be for crop scientists, but clearly not too tough for these two youngsters shelling groundnuts at Mhperembe Market, Malawi.

“To help double the productivity of this crop over the next 10 years, we need to improve groundnuts’ ability to resist drought and diseases without farmers needing to purchase costly agricultural inputs,” says Vincent.

But the crop’s genetic structure is complex, plus, for resistance to these stresses, its genetic diversity is narrow. “Groundnuts are therefore difficult and slow to breed using conventional methods,” says Vincent. And yet, as we shall see later, groundnuts are distinctly disadvantaged when it comes to molecular breeding. But first, the good news!

…wild relatives have genes for resisting the stresses… molecular markers can play a critical role”

Why blood is thicker than water, and family black sheep are valued
Kith and kin are key in groundnut science. Vincent points out that groundnuts have several wild relatives that carry the necessary genes for resisting the stresses – especially leaf diseases – to which the crop is susceptible. These genes can be transferred from the wild cousins to the cultivated crop by blending conventional and molecular breeding techniques. But that is easier said than done, because cultivated groundnuts can’t cross naturally with their wild relatives owing to chromosomic differences.

Groundnut flower

Groundnut flower

“In modern breeding, molecular markers can play a critical role,” says Vincent. “Using markers, one can know the locations of genes of interest from an agronomic perspective, and we can then transfer these genes from the wild relatives into the groundnut varieties preferred by farmers and their markets.”

[The] ‘variegated’ partnership has been essential for unlocking wild groundnut diversity…”

Partnerships in and out of Africa, core capacities
“Partners are key to this work,” says Vincent. The groundnut work is led by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), with collaborators in the target countries, which are Malawi (Chitedze Agricultural Research Centre), Senegal (Institut sénégalais de recherches agricoles ‒ ISRA) and Tanzania (Agricultural Research Institute, Naliendele), Moving forward together, continuous capacity building for partners in Africa is part and parcel of the project. To this end, there have been several training workshops in core areas such as molecular breeding and phenotyping, farmer field days in the context of participatory varietal selection, as well as longer-term training on more complex topics such as drought, in addition to equipping the partners with the critical infrastructure needed for effective phenotyping.

Freshly dug-up groundnuts.

Freshly dug-up groundnuts.

Further afield out of Africa, Vincent’s team also collaborates with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA), France’s Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement ‒ CIRAD, and USA’s University of Georgia.

This ‘variegated’ partnership has been essential for unlocking the wild groundnut diversity when about 12 years ago the EMBRAPA team successfully generated a number of ‘synthetic’ groundnuts from their wild relatives. Unlike the wild groundnuts, these synthetic groundnuts can be crossed to the cultivated type, bringing with them treasure troves of beneficial genes pertaining to the wild that would be otherwise unreachable for the cultivated varieties. Taking this one step further, the CIRAD‒ISRA team, in a close North‒South partnership, has used one of the synthetics from the Brazilian programme to generate new genetic diversity in the groundnut cultivar Fleur11. They are using additional synthetics from ICRISAT to further enlarge this genetic diversity in cultivated groundnuts.

These techniques and tools provide signposts on the genome of varieties for characteristics of importance”

A world first for an ‘orphan’, goals achieved, and what next
Among other goals, the team notably achieved a world first: “To produce the first SSR-based genetic linkage map for cultivated groundnuts!” declares Vincent. SSR stands for simple sequence repeat. The map was published in 2009,  followed later on by a groundnut consensus map in 2012.

Youngster bearing fresh groundnuts along River Gambia in Senegal.

Youngster bearing fresh groundnuts along River Gambia in Senegal.

But what do these maps and their publication mean for groundnut production? Vincent explains: “These techniques and tools provide signposts on the genome of varieties for characteristics of importance ‒ for instance, resistance to a disease ‒ and these are used in combination to speed up the development of groundnut varieties that are more resistant to the stresses found in the harsh environments where most of the tropical world’s poor farmers live. Accelerating development means quicker delivery to farmers who are at high risk of going hungry. TLI Phase I produced synthetic groundnuts with new genes for disease resistance.”

In Phase II of the TLI Project which terminates in mid-2014, the team has continued to identify new genetic and genomic resources, for instance new sources of drought resistance from the germplasm and which are currently being used in the development of new breeding stocks. What is significant about this is that groundnuts ‒ like most other members of the legume family ‒ do not have much in the way of genomic and molecular-genetic resources, and are in fact consequently referred to in some circles as ‘orphans’ of the genome revolution. The focus has also been on resistance to rust, early and late leaf spot, and rosette – all economically critical diseases – by tapping the resilience of GBPD4, a cultivar resistant to rust and leaf spot, and introducing its dual resistance to fortify the most popular varieties against these diseases. The team also hopes to scale up these promising examples.

We believe this team is firmly on the way to fulfilling their two-fold project objectives which were: (1) to develop genomic resources and produce the first molecular-breeding products of the crop by injecting  disease resistance (from TLI Phase I work) into farmer- and market-preferred varieties; and, (2)  to lay the foundation for future marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS) breeding by tapping on newly identified sources of drought tolerance.

 the genetic stocks that hold the most promise to overcome leaf disease are found in the wild relatives… A thorough reflection is needed to combine good genetics with sound agronomic management”

The future
But the team is not resting on their laurels, as the work will not stop with the fulfillment of project objectives. In many ways, their achievements are in fact just the beginning. The new breeding stocks developed during TLI Phase II need to be evaluated further for their drought tolerance and disease resistance prior to their deployment in breeding programmes, and this activity ‒ among others ‒ is included for the next phase of the work in the proposed Tropical Legumes III project. In particular, the genetic stocks that hold the most promise to overcome leaf disease are found in the wild relatives. Thus, the existing materials need to be fully exploited and more need to be produced to cover the full breadth of potential stresses. Vincent adds “Of course an increasing part of the efforts will be about assuring quality evaluation data, meaning we must continue to significantly enhance the capacity ‒ both human and physical ‒ of our partners in target countries. Last but not least, the good wheat and rice cultivars that directly arose from the green revolution would have been nothing without nitrogen fertiliser and irrigation.” Vincent adds that the same applies to groundnuts: they are cultivated in infertile soil, at seeding rates that are unlikely to optimise productivity.

Groundnut drawing

Groundnut drawing

For this reason, and others explained above, “A thorough reflection is needed to combine good genetics with sound agronomic management,” Vincent concludes, stressing the importance of what he terms as ‘looking beyond  the fence’. Vincent’s parting shot, as our conversation draws to close: “In fact, I have grown increasingly convinced over the past year that we probably overlook those agronomic aspects in our genetic improvements at our peril, and we clearly need a re-think of how to better combine genetic improvement with the  most suitable and farmer-acceptable agronomic management of the crop.”

Much food for thought there! And probably the beginnings of an animated conversation to which a groundnut crop model, on which Vincent and team are currently working, could soon yield some interesting answers on the most suitable genetic-by-management packages, and therefore guide the most adequate targets for crop improvement.


*Editorial note: Erratum – Photo changed on April 8 2014, as the previous one depicted chickpeas, not groundnuts. We  apologise to our readers for the error.

Mar 202014


Jeff Ehlers

Jeff Ehlers

Our guest today is Jeff Ehlers (pictured), Programme Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Jeff’s an old friend of GCP, most familiar to the GCP community in his immediate past stomping grounds at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), USA, leading our research to improve cowpea production in the tropics, for which sunny California offers a perfect spot for effective phenotyping. Even then, Jeff was not new to CGIAR, as we’ll see from his career crossings. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves in narrating Jeff’s tale. First, what would high-end cowpea research have to do with crusading and catapults? Only Jeff can tell us, so please do read on!

The GCP model was a very important way of doing business for CGIAR and the broader development community, enabling partnerships between international research institutes, country programmes and CGIAR. This is particularly important as the possibilities of genomics-led breeding become even greater…If anything, we need to see more of this collaborative model.”

Growing green, sowing the seed, trading glory for grassroots
Growing up in USA’s Golden State of California, green-fingered Jeff had a passion for cultivating the land rather than laboratory samples, harbouring keen ambitions to become a farmer. This did not change with the years as he transited from childhood to adolescence. The child grew into a youth who was an avid gardener: in his student days, Jeff threw his energy into creating a community garden project ‒ an initiative which promptly caught the eye of his high school counsellor, who suggested Jeff give the Plant Science Department at UCR a go for undergraduate studies.

And thus the seeds of a positively blooming career in crop research were sown. However, remaining true to the mission inspired by his former community-centred stomping grounds, a grassroots focus triumphed over glory-hunting for Jeff, who – no stranger to rolling his sleeves up and getting his fingers into the sod – found himself, when at the University of California, Davis, for his advanced studies, embarking on what was to become a lifelong undertaking, first at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and then at UCR, dedicated to a then under-invested plant species straggler threatening to fall by the research world’s wayside. With a plethora of potential genomic resources and modern breeding tools yet to be tapped into, Jeff’s cowpea crusade had begun in earnest…

GCP’s TLI was essential in opening that door and putting us on the path to increased capability – both for cowpea research enablement and human capacity”

Straggler no more: stardom beckons, and a place at the table for the ‘orphan’
And waiting in the wings to help Jeff along his chosen path was the Generation Challenge Programme (GCP), which, in 2007, commissioned Jeff’s team to tackle the cowpea component of the flagship Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project, implemented by GCP under the Legumes Research Initiative. TLI is mainly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The significance of this project, Jeff explains, was considerable: “The investment came at a very opportune time, and demonstrated great foresight on the part of both GCP and the Foundation.” Prior to this initiative, he further explains, “there had been no investment by anyone else to allow these orphan crops to participate in the feast of technologies and tools suddenly available and that other major crops were aggressively getting into. Before GCP and Gates funding for TLI came along, it was impossible to think about doing any kind of modern breeding in the orphan grain legume crops. GCP’s TLI was essential in opening that door and putting us on the path to increased capability – both for cowpea research enablement and human capacity.”

Flashback: UCR cowpea team in 2009. Left to right: Wellington Muchero, Ndeye Ndack Diop (familiar, right?!), Raymond Fenton, Jeff Ehlers, Philip Roberts and Timothy Close in a greenhouse on the UCR campus, with cowpeas in the background. Ndeye Ndack and Jeff seem to love upstaging each other. She came to UCR as a postdoc working under Jeff, then she moved to GCP, with oversight over the TLI project, thereby becoming Jeff's boss, then he moved to the Foundation with oversight over TLI. So, what do you think might be our Ndeye Ndack's next stop once GCP winds up in 2014? One can reasonably speculate....!

Flashback: UCR cowpea team in 2009. Left to right: Wellington Muchero, Ndeye Ndack Diop (familiar, right?!), Raymond Fenton, Jeff Ehlers, Philip Roberts and Timothy Close in a greenhouse on the UCR campus, with cowpeas in the background. Ndeye Ndack and Jeff seem to love upstaging each other. She came to UCR as a postdoc working under Jeff, then she moved to GCP, with oversight over the TLI project, thereby becoming Jeff’s boss, then he moved to the Foundation with oversight over TLI. So, what do you think might be our Ndeye Ndack’s next stop once GCP winds up in 2014? One can reasonably speculate….!

Of capacity building, genomics and ‘X-ray’ eyes
This capacity-building cornerstone – which, in the case of the TLI project, is mainly funded by the European Commission – is, says Jeff, a crucial key to unlocking the potential of plant science globally. “The next generation of crop scientists ‒ particularly breeders ‒ need to be educated in the area of genomics and genomics-led breeding.”

While stressing the need for robust conventional breeding efforts, Jeff continues: ”Genomics gives the breeder X-ray eyes into the breeding programme, bringing new insights and precision that were previously unavailable.”

In this regard, Jeff has played a leading role in supporting skill development and organising training for his team members and colleagues across sub-Saharan Africa, meaning that partners from Mozambique, Burkina Faso and Senegal, among others, are now, in Phase II of the TLI project, moving full steam ahead with marker-assisted and backcross legume breeding at national level, thanks to the genotyping platform and genetic fingerprints from Phase I of the project. The genotyping platform, which is now publicly available to anyone looking to undertake marker-assisted breeding for cowpeas, is being widely used by research teams not only in Africa but also in China. Thanks in part then to Jeff and his team, the wheels of the genomics revolution for cowpeas are well and truly in motion.

Undergoing the transition from phenotypic old-school plant breeder to modern breeder with all the skills required was a struggle…it was challenging to teach others the tools when I didn’t know them myself!…without GCP, I would not have been able to grow in this way.”

Talking about a revolution, comrades-in-arms, and a master mastering some more
But as would be expected, the road to revolution has not always been entirely smooth. Reflecting on some of the challenges he encountered in the early TLI days, and highlighting the need to invest not only in new students, but also in upgrading the existing skills of older scientists, Jeff tells of a personal frustration that had him battling it out alongside the best of them: “Undergoing the transition from phenotypic old-school plant breeder to modern breeder with all the skills required was a struggle,” he confides, continuing: “It was challenging to teach others the tools when I didn’t know them myself!”

Thus, in collaboration with his cowpea comrades from the global North and South, Jeff braved the steep learning curve before him, and came out on the other side smiling – an accomplishment he is quick to credit to GCP: “It was a very interesting and fruitful experience, and without GCP, I would not have been able to grow in this way,” he reveals. Holding the collaborative efforts facilitated by the broad GCP network particularly dear, Jeff continues: “The GCP model was a very important way of doing business for CGIAR and the broader development community, enabling partnerships between international research institutes, country programmes and CGIAR. This is particularly important as the possibilities of genomics-led breeding become even greater…If anything, we need to see more of this collaborative model.”

GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform addresses the lack of modern breeding skills in the breeding community as a whole, globally…The Platform provides extremely valuable and much-needed resources for many public peers around the world, especially in Africa…”

One initiative which has proved especially useful in giving researchers a leg up in the mastery of modern breeding tools, Jeff asserts, is GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP): “IBP addresses the lack of modern breeding skills in the breeding community as a whole, globally. By providing training in the use of genomic tools that are becoming available, from electronic capture of data through to genotyping, phenotyping, and all the way to selective decision-making and analysis of results, IBP will play a critical role in helping folks to leverage on the genomics revolution that’s currently unfolding,” Jeff enthuses, expanding: “The Platform provides extremely valuable and much-needed resources for many public peers around the world, especially in Africa where such one-off tools that are available commercially would be otherwise out of reach.”

Conqueror caparisoned to catapult: life on the fast lane and aiming higher
Well-versed in conquering the seemingly unobtainable, Jeff shares some pearls of wisdom for young budding crop scientists:”Be motivated by the mission, and the ideas and the science, and not by what’s easy, or by what brings you the most immediate gratification,” he advises, going on to explain: “Cowpeas have been through some really tough times. Yet, my partners and I stuck it out, remained dedicated and kept working.” And the proof of Jeff’s persistence is very much in the pudding, with his team at UCR having become widely acclaimed for their success in catapulting cowpeas into the fast lane of crop research.

It was a success that led him to the hallways of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where, after two decades at UCR, Jeff is currently broadening his legume love affair to also embrace beans, groundnuts, chickpeas, pigeonpeas and soya beans.

February 2014: Jeff donning his new Gates hat (albeit with a literal ICRISAT cap on). Behind him is a field of early maturing pigeonpea experiment at ICRISAT India.

February 2014: Jeff donning his (now-not-so-)new Gates hat and on the road, visiting ICRISAT in India. Behind him is an ICRISAT experimental field of early-maturing pigeonpeas. Here, our conquering crusader is ‘helmeted’ in an ICRISAT cap, even if not horsed and caparisoned for this ‘peacetime’ pigeonpea mission!

On his future professional aspirations, he says: “The funding cut-backs for agriculture which started before 1990 or so gutted a lot of the capacity in the public sector, both in the national programmes in Africa but also beyond. I hope to play a role in rebuilding some of the capacity to ensure that people take full advantage of the technical resources available, and to enable breeding programmes to function at a higher level than they do now.”

Jeff (foreground) inspecting soya bean trials in Kakamega, Kenya.

Jeff (foreground) inspecting soya bean trials in Kakamega, Kenya, in January 2013. Next to Jeff is Emmanuel Monyo, the coordinator of the Tropical Legumes II (TLII) project – TLI’s twin – whose brief is seed multiplication. TLII is therefore responsible for translating research outputs from TLI into tangible products in the form of improved legume varieties.

Whilst it’s been several years since he donned his wellington boots for the gardening project of his youth, what’s clear in this closing statement is an unremitting and deeply ingrained sense of community spirit – albeit with a global outlook – and a fight for the greater good that remain at the core of Jeff’s professional philosophy today.

No doubt, our cowpea champion and his colleagues have come a long way, with foundations now firmly laid for modern breeding in the crop on a global scale, and – thanks to channels now being established to achieve the same for close relatives of the species – all signs indicate that the best is yet to come!


Mar 072014
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


Feb 282013

Drought stalks, some die
Despite the widespread cultivation of beans in Africa, yields are low, stagnating at between 20 and 30 percent of their potential. Drought brought about by climate change is the main culprit, afflicting 70 percent of Africa’s major bean-producing regions in Southern and Eastern Africa.Bean plant by R Okono

Today we turn the spotlight on Zimbabwe, where drought is a serious and recurrent problem. Crop failure is common at altitudes below 800 meters, and livestock death from shortage of fodder and water are all too common. In recent history, nearly every year is a drought year in these low-lying regions frequently plagued by delayed rains, as well as by intermittent and terminal drought.

The ‘battleground’ and ‘blend’
Zimbabwe is divided into five Natural Regions or agroecological zones. More than 70 percent of smallholder farmers live in Natural Region 3, 4 and 5, which jointly account for 65 percent of Zimbabwe’s total land area (293,000 km2). It is also here that the searing dual forces of drought and heat combine to ‘sizzle’  and whittle bean production.

The rains are insufficient for staple foods such as maize, and some of their complementary legumes such as groundnuts. In some areas where temperatures do not soar too high (less than 30oC), beans blend perfectly into the reduced rainfall regime that reigns during the growing season.

A deeper dig: the root of the matter

Godwill Makunde

Godwill Makunde

Research from Phase I of the Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project under GCP’s Legume Research Initiative showed that deep rooting is one of the ways to confer drought tolerance in common beans. High plant biomass at pod-filling stage also confers drought tolerance. “These important findings from TLI refined our breeding objectives, as we now focus on developing varieties combining deep roots and high plant biomass,” reveals Godwill Makunde (pictured), a bean breeder at Zimbabwe’s Crop Breeding Institute (CBI), which falls under the under the country’s Department of Research & Specialist Services. Zimbabwe is one the four target countries in Eastern and Southern Africa for GCP’s bean research (the other three being Ethiopia, Kenya and Malawi).

From America to Africa…the heat is on, so is the battle…

The battle is on to beat the heat: through the project, CBI received 202 Mesoamerican and Andean bean breeding lines from the reference set collection held by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT, by its Spanish acronym). A ‘reference set’ is a sub-sample of existing germplasm collections that facilitates and enables access to existing crop diversity for desired traits, such as drought tolerance or resistance to disease or pests. The Institute also embarked on bringing in more techniques to breed for heat tolerance.

Kennedy Simango

Kennedy Simango

Drought, pests and disease
“We embraced mutation breeding in collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and we primarily look for heat tolerance in small-seeded beans,” says Kennedy Simango (pictured right and below), a plant breeder at CBI. “Preliminary results suggested that just like drought, the reproductive stages of common bean are when the crop is most sensitive to heat. Flower- and pod-drop are common. Yield components and yields are severely reduced. In addition, we also focus on developing pest- and disease-resistant varieties.”


Kennedy Simango at work a the Crop Breeding Institute.
Kennedy Simango at work a the Crop Breeding Institute.

The CBI project’s primary diseases and pests of focus are angular leaf spot (ALS), common bacterial blight (CBB), rust and bean stem maggot, and aphids. “This came from our realisation that drought co-exists with heat, diseases and pests,” Kennedy adds. “So, a variety combining drought, heat, disease and pest tolerance all together would increase common bean productivity under harsh environments or drought-prone areas.”

At first glance, piling up all these vital survival traits may appear insurmountable, but it is all feasible, thanks to advances in plant science. “Breeding methods are changing rapidly, and it is vital that we keep up with the technology,” says Kennedy.

The CBI team is using molecular breeding to identify drought-tolerant parents, and then cross them into preferred bean varieties to confer to the ‘offspring’ the best of both worlds – drought tolerance and market appeal.

All-round capacity and competence
GCP’s support does not stop at enabling access to breeding lines alone, or introduction to molecular breeding. “We got a lyophiliser, which is specialised equipment that enables us to extract DNA and send it for genotyping,” says Kennedy. “From the genotyping exercise, we hope to be able to trace the relationships among breeding lines so that we design better crossing programmes, and thereby maximise the diversity of our breeding lines. In addition, we hope to select recombinants carrying desirable genes in a short period of time, and at times without even needing to test them in the target environment.” GCP assists with genotyping through its Genotyping Support Service offered through the Integrated Breeding Platform.

For phenotyping, CBI has benefitted from a mobile weather station, a SPAD meter (for measuring chlorophyll content), a leaf porometer (for measuring leaf stomatal conductance) and water-marks (probes for measuring soil moisture).

Human resources have not been forgotten either. Godwill Makunde, a CBI bean breeder, is studying for a TLII-funded PhD in Plant Breeding at the University of the Free State, South Africa. A group of four scientists (Godwill and Kenedy,  plus Charles Mutimaamba, and Munyaradzi Mativavarira) are in GCP’s three-year Integrated Breeding Multi-Year Course (IB–MYC). The curriculum includes design of experiments, data collection, analysis and interpretation, molecular breeding and data management techniques. In addition, GCP also trains research technicians. For CBI, Clever Zvarova, Anthony Kaseke, Mudzamiri and Chikambure have attended this training. Their course also includes phenotyping protocols (data collection and use of electronic tablets in designing field-books). To date, CBI has received five tablets for digital data collection , of which two are outstanding.

Photo: CBI

Godwill doing what he does best: bean breeding.

Bringing it all together, and on to farms
But how relevant are all these breeder-focused R&D efforts to the farmer? Let’s review this in proper context: in the words of Mr Denis Mwashita, a small-scale farmer at the Chinyika Resettlement Scheme in Bingaguru, Zimbabwe, “Beans have always carried disease, but from the little we harvest and eat, we and our children have developed stomachs.”

“What Mr Mwashita means is that despite the meagre harvests, farm families fare better in terms of health and nutrition for having grown beans,” explains Godwill.

With this solid all-round support in science, working partnerships, skills and infrastructure, the CBI bean team is well-geared to breed beans that beat both heat and disease, thereby boosting yields, while also meeting farmer and market needs. Trials are currently underway to select lines that match these critical needs which are the clincher for food security.

“The Zimbabwe market is used to the sugar type, which is however susceptible to drought. We hope to popularise other more drought-tolerant types,” says Kennedy. “We plan to selected a few lines in the coming season and test them with farmers prior to their release. Our goal is to have at the very least one variety released to farmers by mid-2013.”

A noble goal indeed, and we wish our Zimbabwe bean team well in their efforts to improve local food security.

VIDEO: The ABCs of bean breeding in Africa and South America, with particular focus on Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe

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Nov 292012

By Gillian Summers

The TLI project lets us know about molecular breeding, so it’s exposed us to new developments in science, especially in the application of molecular techniques and plant breeding.”  Asrat Asfaw Amele, Southern Agricultural Research Institute, Ethiopia

Many a tale about Ethiopia will regale the reader with details of its contrasting landscape, numerous rivers, searing regional temperatures, the multicultural makeup of its society, its world-famous, unbeatable long-distance and high-altitude runners, its rich history and culture; a sweet producer of honey, the home of coffee, and origin of all mankind…

Seeing red… but no blood
…I found a land of incurably hospitable and kind people, proud of their country and culture; infectiously good music, incredibly strong coffee, where they love both bloody raw meat and protein-rich red beans, dubbed ‘bloodless meat’ in this part of the world.

Cool early morning departure

Cool early morning departure

Out & about
My first real taste of Ethiopia was out in the countryside where I visited the work of GCP’s Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project in the field, on a trip to the bean fields at the Southern Agricultural Research Institute’s (SARI) research stations at Areka and Hawassa, which took us on a 600-km round tour, out of the capital Addis Ababa and into the Great Rift Valley beyond.

We set off early that cool morning, and as we headed into the countryside, I glimpsed many a local taking their first breath of morning air as they stepped outside from their decoratively-painted, round, thatched-roof homes, and shook the night’s sleep from their shoulders.

Traditional thatched living rooms

Traditional thatched living rooms

So their day began – already there was smoke coming from the chimneys, and I imagined the lady of the house beginning to prepare for the first coffee ceremony of the day. Coffee is often accompanied by a dish of boiled red beans. Or maybe she was warming the pan for the morning injera – a kind of ‘teff tortilla’: a sour-dough thin pancake made of the local cereal, teff. Injera is an iconic ubiquitous component of Ethiopian cuisine, with which diners take all manner of wat, or stew made from a rich variety of ingredients – from legumes to raw meat, carefully rolling the spongy crepe around the filling twice, making sure no food falls onto the fingers, for dining etiquette strictly dictates against the licking of fingers.

Ensete plantations

Ensete plantations

Living landscape

We pass score upon score of the gently-smoking thatched round huts – the traditional ‘living rooms’ in these parts; most dwellings are accompanied by modest smallholdings, with maybe a grazing goat or two, and many more with plantations of ensete – a banana-like plant, which, in spite of its inedible fruit, has long been a staple in Ethiopia. It is used for its root, which is mashed to make a tasty, stodgy, bread-like food called kocho, used to accompany meals, a denser cousin of the favourite injera. These smallholdings would also be the perfect size for cultivating beans, as they are not an acre-hungry crop, but grow happily on small plots of land, and in some areas are intercropped with ensete to maximise the space.

Dromedaries, drought and beans

Our common legume: the bean, Phaseolus vulgaris L

Our common legume: the bean, Phaseolus vulgaris L

Into this landscape we pass the incongruous addition of a herd or two of camels with their owners…significantly peculiar as these aren’t desert lands, but the edge of the Ethiopian highlands, gradually and graciously giving way to the majestic Great Rift Valley below. I ask my guide about the addition of camel hands to this highland scenery: he explains their strange presence is due to a growing food shortage which has forced these nomadic peoples further afield to find their fare. The appearance of these dromedaries and their human partners brings harshly to mind Ethiopia’s most notorious claim to fame – especially for anyone who recalls the mid-1980s – for whom Ethiopia will always be indelibly synonymous with famine. It also throws the work of GCP, and specifically TLI, sharply into the spotlight, for the over-arching objective of this project is to improve legume productivity in environments considered marginal for agriculture, due to heat and other stresses. Somehow, it seems that more of the world’s environment is becoming ‘stressed’ by the day, though luckily the giant beanstalk of our story is a hardy crop which can be grown on the poor soils and fragmented plots of these challenged lands.

L–R: Asrat Asfaw Amele (SARI), Bodo Raatz (CIAT), Daniel A Demissie

L–R: Asrat Asfaw Amele (SARI), Bodo Raatz (CIAT) and Daniel A Demissie (Areka Research Station) discuss the A–Z of beans at Areka Research Station.

So the legume of choice for this most uncommon road trip is the common bean, Phaseolus vulgaris L, and our Ethiopian bean breeding expert is Asrat Asfaw Amele of the Southern Agricultural Research Institute (SARI), who is the Lead Scientist of the TLI beans component in Ethiopia. Asrat is our friendly guide and fount of knowledge of all things Ethiopian throughout this impassioned passage into the ‘bean valley’, and we are accompanied by Bodo Raatz of the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT), recently appointed Principal Investigator of TLI’s bean research. At Areka research station we are joined on our journey by Daniel A Demissie, who, along the way, shares his many insights on beans, diseases such as bean stem maggot (BSM), and on drought . We are chaperoned throughout by our courageous driver, Mr Abebe, who at times resembles a pilot as we seem to fly over the bumpy terrain in the plucky pick-up that is our steed for the day.

Courageous steeds

Courageous steeds: our driver, Mr Abebe (foreground and far right) and the intrepid pickup are joined by workers from Areka station


Asrat Afaw Amele

Asrat Afaw Amele

Against the scenic backdrop of the Ethiopian landscape racing by, with background music courtesy of Teddy Afro (whose politically charged songs, sweet voice and infectious rhythm have made him nothing short of a legend in his homeland), I take advantage of this long and winding road trip to interview Asrat, where his answers echo the whirlwind tour rushing by outside – from a description of the landscape he knows so well, and toils in every day – to the impact that this project has had on national scientists, the impacts on farmers’ lives, as well as impacts that are likely to come in the not-too-distant future.

We consider farmers our partners. We try to understand what farmers are looking for, what they like, and we try to include their interests in our breeding materials so that the breeding materials released by our institution start to get wider adoption.” – Asrat Asfaw Amele (pictured).

The rich Ethiopian landscape

The rich Ethiopian landscape

Revolution, alliances & partnerships

Ethiopia’s rich history, as varied as its topographical landscape, has known its fair share of extreme rulers. Now it seems the new ‘regime’ calling the shots is climate change, whose ravaging effects are seen worldwide, and no less in the bean fields of Ethiopia. Asrat even pinpoints climate change as the greatest challenge for the next generation of bean researchers, saying, “The farmers’ growing environment may be modified or a new environment may be created. That could also be a challenge – a new pest population or new disease may come; so the challenge in the future may be to breed or develop varieties which adapt to the changing environment.”

Beans line up

Beans line up at Awassa Research Station

The revolutionaries needed to overthrow this ‘tyrant’, it seems, are those of the ‘triple alliance’ partnership, comprising: Ethiopia’s national scientists, researchers from the international science community including CGIAR Centres, and farmers. Firstly, with this approach, the science sector can understand farmers’ needs, which also has a reciprocal effect, as Asrat explains, “We consider farmers our partners. We try to understand what farmers are looking for, what they like, and we try to include their interests in our breeding materials so that the breeding materials released by our institution start are widely adopted.” Secondly, national and international science systems come together to work for a common goal – in Asrat’s words: “Now we’ve got the knowledge and we can speak a common language with people from advanced laboratories. It’s also brought us closer to international institutes like CIAT and other CG Centres – we work together, so they understand our system better and we understand how they function.” He adds, “We are getting technical backstopping from CGIAR Centres, so as a national partner we are doing work, and they are supplying germplasm. That’s the partnership that will continue in the future.”

The weapon used by this ‘revolutionary army’ is GCP’s double-barrelled approach which combines both traditional and molecular breeding practices and is proving to be effective in developing new, more productive bean varieties to combat drought and disease. Specifically of the TLI project, Asrat says, “It lets us know about molecular breeding, so it’s exposed us to new developments in science, especially in the application of molecular techniques and plant breeding.”

Daniel A Demissie

Daniel A Demissie contemplates looming rain clouds across the parched terrain

The ‘monster’, climate change, rears its ugly head only to be shot down expertly by Asrat and the mighty beans as he reveals, “A lot of farmers are growing our varieties, and, because of changing weather or instability, many people are starting to grow beans; beans are now becoming a major crop, especially in our mandate area.”

Capacity building …
At this stage, the major impact of the TLI beans component in Ethiopia has been on capacity building – both in terms of human resources and physical infrastructure, as Asrat illustrates, “In our breeding programme, capacity building has been an important aspect: scientists in our national system are being exposed to new technology, information, and training; we also have a full irrigation system in about 10 hectares of land, which will revolutionise our work.”

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Magical bean diversity

… and on to farmers
By building on lessons learnt throughout this project, current impacts for the national science system will be translated into ‘real impacts’ in farmers’ fields in the near future. Indeed, Asrat hopes his future work will involve “getting the material into the hands of farmers, to see some impact or change, and to modernise and speed up breeding processes using markers developed by this project.”

Beanstalks. Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Beanstalks: giant potential in Ethiopia

So the ‘magic beans’ of our story tell of a rich brew brimming with such potent ingredients as molecular breeding, capacity building, partnerships spanning continents and research systems, true teamwork with the farmers in the fields, and the drive to conquer the new challenge of a changing climate.

The impacts from the TLI project are the pot of gold at this rainbow’s end, showing that fairy tales do come true, where ‘magic beans’ put down roots and grow real shoots, and are not just ‘castles in the air’.


Nov 132012

Bean breeding in his bones: Asrat A Amele

For our bean team, we already see the benefits of being in the Tropical Legumes I  project. We now understand molecular breeding, and we are able to apply molecular breeding techniques.” – Asrat A Amele (pictured)

Asrat is a bean breeder at Ethiopia’s South Agricultural Research Institute (SARI) at the Awassa Research Centre.

Besides breeding beans that will better battle drought, Asrat’s team combines drought tolerance with resistance to the bean stem maggot (BSM) – a pest that afflicts all bean-growing zones in Ethiopia.

Connections, continuity and capacity building
The Tropical Legumes I (TLI) was not an entirely new connection, as Asrat’s involvement with GCP predates this particular project. He started off as a GCP-funded fellow in 2007, investigating bean genetics for drought tolerance. The fellowship would also seem him do a stint in Colombia at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture  (CIAT, by its Spanish acronym). His work at the time on root phenotyping and quantitative trait loci (QTL) analysis has since been published.

At that time, Asrat remarked:

The GCP fellowships programme is great for a person like me, working in a developing-country research institute. I can say it potentially provides researchers with up-to-date scientific knowledge in areas of specialisation. It provides better contact with scientists in other parts of the world and opens a wider window to think on problems and deliver better research products.”

Thorugh GCP, Asrat also attended a molecular breeding course at Wageningen University and Research Centre in The Netherlands. Wageningen is a GCP Consortium member.

The ravages wrought by bean stem maggot.

Having passed through that door of opportunity and looking back now, what does Asrat say? “Through TLI, we were able to access new parental sources of germplasm recommended for release and use for breeding. For instance, we’ve received more than 200 lines from CIAT, from which 10 have been selected to be used as parents. We plan to do crosses with these parents to develop a marker-assisted recurrent selection [MARS] population, based on the problems plaguing beans in Africa.”

And it’s not all about material but also matters cerebral (and matters manual, as we shall see further on): “From the science meetings we attend, we’ve also gained valuable new contacts and acquired new knowledge.” Asrat reveals.

Two…and two

Fitsum Alemayehu

Daniel Ambachew

The next step is to validate the workability of MARS, and SARI has a GCP-funded PhD student, Fistum Alemayehu (pictured right), registered at the South Africa’s Free State University and conducting his phenotyping in Ethiopia, alongside other well-trained staff that SARI now has. Fistum is working on marker-assisted recurrent selection for drought tolerance in beans, while Daniel Ambachew (pictured left), another GCP-funded MSc student enrolled at Haramaya University, Ethiopia, is evaluating recombinant inbred line populations and varieties for combined dual tolerance of drought and bean stem maggot.

Both students are using molecular breeding: “For this work, we’ll be using SNP* markers. It is probably the first use of bean SNPs in sub-Saharan Africa. We will now do QTL analysis with the bean population we have from CIAT,” reveals Asrat.

* SNP: (pronounced ‘snips’) is a technical term, and the abbreviation is derived from ‘single nucleotide polymorphism’ – an advanced molecular-marker system widely used in genetic science. You can read more about SNPs in this press release.

Of humans and machines

A training session on maintaining farm machinery.

Moving on to matters manual and mechanical, besides enhanced human resources, SARI has benefited from infrastructure support as part of GCP’s comprehensive capacity-building package: the Institute now has an irrigation system to enable them conduct drought trials, and SARI technicians from more than 20 different SARI stations have been trained in proper use and routine maintenance of farm machinery. SARI also received two automatic weather stations from GCP for high-precision climatic data capture, with automated data loading and sharing with other partners in the network.

Through this project, SARI is now well tuned into the international arena of bean research and development, and profiting in new ways from this exposure to growing international connections.

Water drilling to install irrigation equipment at SARI.

Institutional revolution and rebirth
The engagement with GCP has revolutionised bean breeding at SARI and institutionalised marker-assisted selection. As a result, SARI will soon have a small molecular breeding laboratory funded by another agency. This lab will support one more PhD student and an additional MSc student, both registered in Ethiopian universities and working on marker-assisted selection for beans.

Thus, in this southern corner of Ethiopia, bean breeders conversant in molecular methods will continue to be ‘born’, better-prepared and well-equipped to meet the challenges facing bean breeding today.




Asrat on video


SLIDES: Phenotyping common beans for tolerance of drought and bean stem maggots in Ethiopia


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