Breaking new ground in MARS – GCP launches Challenge Initiative on wheat in Asia (February 2010)

Breaking new ground in MARS – GCP launches Challenge Initiative on wheat in Asia

The Generation Challenge Programme (GCP) of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) officially launched its wheat Challaenge Initiative in late February 2010, first in India then in China. Both meetings were attended by high-ranking scientists, in addition to the research teams working on the project.

Wheat in Asia is one of the seven Challenge Initiatives (CIs) that are a key priority for GCP in Phase II of the Programme (2009–2013). The wheat CI is a joint China–India research initiative led by scientists from both countries, working in close liaison with several GCP partners to breed heat- and drought-tolerant wheat. Some of the aspects of the wheat in Asia CI spring from work done by teams led by Dr Francis Ogbonnaya of ICARDA and by Dr Peter Langridge of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics. Dr Ogbonnaya and Dr Langridge attended both meetings.

Dr Richard Trethowan, the wheat CI Product Delivery Coordinator, remarked, “Improved water use for drought tolerance is a contemporary and urgent issue. Researchers cannot continue doing things the same old way. I am excited about the possibilities that marker-assisted recurrent selection opens up. Let’s make it work!”

Drought is a serious concern affecting China’s food production, and is also GCP’s key focus trait. This area of research is very complex and replete with challenges and complications, but drought is undoubtedly the number one trait in international agricultural research today. Six of the seven GCP Challenge Initiatives in Phase II are on drought, including this one on wheat.

Experts are agreed that India is an extremely water-stressed country, with the water table falling at an alarming rate. In North Gujarat alone for example, it is reported to be dropping by as much as six meters per year. And in all cases, this severe groundwater depletion has largely been attributed to agricultural use, and not to climatic conditions or climate change. This situation harbours great potential to cause much human suffering and even social chaos and anarchy. At current consumption rates, the projection is that by 2025, India will be in a deep water crisis.

The five-year CI aims to assemble and integrate into breeding programmes wheat strains and genes that offer efficient water use and enhanced heat tolerance. Many of these genetic materials will be multiplied at – and provided by – the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT, by its Spanish acronym), while the Plant Breeding Institute of the University of Sydney, Australia, will provide technical assistance and germplasm. Precise phenotypic data underpin genotyping and much of the breeding process. Characterisation of target experimental sites will be essential to meaningfully and fully interpret data, while staff training in standardised phenotyping protocols (for measuring drought- and heat-adaptive traits) will facilitate precise characterisation in all environments, as well as enhance staff capacity.

Although marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS) has vastly improved efficiency in the private sector, MARS has not been widely used in public-sector research, which makes this CI a groundbreaker in the public sector.

The wheat in Asia CI will benefit from GCP-funded research conducted by the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and by the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics. Both CIMMYT and ICARDA are CGIAR members.

In both countries, the project will result in 15–20 wheat lines with superior drought and heat tolerance, and adapted to each country’s conditions. These lines will be developed using molecular markers. In both India and China, 4–6 postgraduate students and 20 scientists will be trained in phenotyping methodologies. In addition, up to three postgraduate students (MSc or PhD) from both countries will be trained in Australia. To maximise mutual learning and ensure synergies, exchange visits between key Chinese and Indian researchers are also planned, as well as visits to CIMMYT (Mexico) and to the Plant Breeding Institute (Australia). Projects for postgraduate students will focus on the physiological and genetic dissection of stress responses in the materials develop through marker-assisted breeding, while researcher exchange visits to partner countries will be at the most critical stage of the crop cycle in the host country.

In each country, 3–5 traits and 5–8 quantitative trait loci (QTLs) will be recommended for wheat breeding. For India, an additional target is four wheat mega-varieties with improved water-use efficiency and higher heat tolerance. These super-varieties have the potential of covering about 24 million hectares and minimising yield loss from heat, or drought, or both, by up to 20–50 percent.

To facilitate achieving these goals, GCP is taking a highly structured approach, through comprehensive project delivery plans formulated by project teams with guidance from Dr Larry Butler, GCP’s new Product Delivery Leader, and also through project-specific breeding schemes jointly designed with Dr Xavier Delannay, Leader of GCP’s Subprogramme 3 on Trait capture for crop improvement. This structured approach aims at not only ensuring delivery but also long-term and sustained impact beyond the project horizon.

NEW DELHI, INDIA – GCP’s Challenge Initiative on wheat in India was officially launched on 22 February 2010 at the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences in New Delhi, India. The two-day launch meeting was hosted by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI).

“This is a welcome and important initiative for India,” remarked Dr Swapan Datta (pictured right), Deputy Director General Datta(Crop Improvement), Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).

“This CI will spur increased collaboration,” observed Dr Jean-Marcel Ribaut, GCP Director. He continued, “India has a community of outstanding scientists and Indian partners are critical for GCP’s success in Phase II. We are counting on this support and are privileged to have ICAR as one of the founding members of the GCP Consortium.”

The promises of Phase II
He explained that GCP Phase II will see more and more projects led by country programme partners, with CGIAR Centres and developed country partners taking a back seat as mentors and collaborators, and not direct project leaders. For the wheat CI in India, this redefined partnership – which also includes the Plant Breeding Institute of the University of Sydney, Australia, and CIMMYT – is also reflected in the project budget, with 80–90 percent of the funds going directly to partners in India.

GCP Phase II promises to be much more exciting and engaging for country programmes, Dr Datta noted. He added that the greater focus and independence in Phase II and the Programme’s investments in molecular breeding, all provide fertile ground for more rewarding partnerships based on mutual interests. Looking at the seven CIs as a whole, GCP Phase II prioritises crops that are also important for India, and ICAR is actively seeking alliances in international agriculture, particularly in molecular breeding.

New wind
Dr NK Singh, Principal Scientist at the National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology agreed. “A new wind is blowing at ICAR, and this wheat project is very timely. We are very interested in partnerships with international players.”

Prof GK Gupta stressed the importance of coordination and collaboration. “A coordination mechanism is needed in India, to maximise complementarities and synergies,” he said. Prof Gupta is a veteran in the field, and has worked on wheat for 40 years now. Prof Gupta is leading a complementary initiative on drought improvement for wheat supported by India’s Department of Biotechnology.

Dr HS Gupta (pictured right), Director, Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), concurred on the need to avoid duplication andGupta therefore make the best use of the scarce resources available. He stressed the importance of breeding for drought, and for cooperation: “We must coordinate, communicate and complement one another. Researchers should not work in isolation. Drought is a great problem, further compounded by a rise in temperature, and this is a much-needed research initiative.” he said. He also re-affirmed IARI’s full cooperation: “We have committed our best scientists for this work and they will deliver their best,” he added.

Multi-institutional partnershipsDr-Prabhu
The project plan will be revisited to clarify the roles and expectations of the different partners working on GCP’s wheat Challenge Initiative in India. This wheat CI brings together five institutes in India, with Dr KV Prabhu of IARI (pictured left) as the project leader. As a result of discussions on the first day of the workshop, the Agharkar Research Institute in Pune is the newest partner. Located in a hotter region than the other research sites, Pune brings an additional seven degrees of cropping season temperature, which will enrich the heat tolerance study and database. Other partners are Jawaharlal Nehru Krishi Vishwa Vidyalaya, National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology and Punjab Agricultural University.

All the CIs will have a strong molecular breeding component which will be supported by GCP’s Molecular Breeding Platform (MBP) and Genetic Resources Support Service (GRSS). “Each CI is different in terms of the opportunities, risks and impact,” clarified Dr Ribaut. For India, given the local support, infrastructure and competencies, he was optimistic that the wheat CI would succeed and have great impact on the numerous smallholder wheat farmers. “This project presents a rare mix of low risk and high-potential impact” he added.

In his closing remarks, Dr Ribaut said that this was an important initiative for GCP to demonstrate that molecular breeding can increase the efficiency of breeding and have impact on crop productivity in developing countries. The GCP management has high expectations and is committed to help the initiative succeed. He commended and thanked the India team for taking on the challenge and urged the team to communicate constantly with GCP management – not just on the good news, but also the bad news for prompt remedial action.

“GCP will not be disappointed and we will deliver on expectations,” assured Dr Prabhu, reiterating the support and commitment of both IARI and ICAR to this project.


The India wheat CI team, pictured here with Dr Swapan Datta, Deputy Director General (Crop Improvement), ICAR, (2nd row 4th left), and Dr HS Gupta, Director, IARI (1st row, 3rd left).

BEIJING, CHINA – The next stop was Beijing, China, where the wheat CI launch meeting from 25–27 February 2010, was hosted by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS).

Like ICAR in India, CAAS is a founding GCP Consortium member. “China has been a good GCP partner and friend right from the Programme’s beginnings, and the country has an impressive team of scientists,” observed Dr Ribaut. “There’s absolutely no doubt that this good relationship will be strengthened further.”

In his welcoming remarks, Dr Tang Huajan, Vice-President, CAAS, observed that the launch meeting was in the festive season of the Chinese new year. “This is the Year of the Tiger, so there are indeed even stronger collaborations ahead,” he said.

Food first
With a population of 1.4 billion projected to rise to 1.6 billion within the next two decades, providing adequate quality food to the population is very high on China’s agenda. Noting that CAAS is keenly pursuing international collaborations in agriculture, Dr Tang (pictured left) said CAAS has memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with most of the CGIAR Centres and hosts seven on its campus. A vast number of Chinese scientists have also been trained at and by CG Centres, and this has greatly benefited the country. For instance, as the first step in this new project, researchers in the Chinese wheat CI underwent training in phenotyping in late 2009 at CIMMYT. The next step will be for the trainees to formulate phenotyping protocols, by adapting those already designed by the wheat CI team in India.

China and GCP are also united by another common priority: “Drought affects many crops in China,” said Dr Tang (pictured left). Southwest China is currently afflicted by drought, affecting a population of 15m people. In Northern China which is a maize- and wheat-growing area, drought is a problem. Drought-tolerant crops are therefore important to guarantee productivity and also improve quality.” He added that China was pleased to join hands with international partners to address productivity under drought.

The purpose of the meeting was to share experiences and report on progress in solving the problems that will lead to better varieties to improve wheat production.

In his opening remarks, Dr Wang Shumin (pictured right) Deputy Director General of the Institute of Crop Science, CAAS, revealed thatWang-1 60 percent of the institute’s scientists work on wheat. This, he said, reflects the importance of wheat in China, and further underscores why research on wheat water-use efficiency and drought tolerance is a priority. He also observed that collaboration with CGIAR institutes had increased as a result of engagement with GCP, citing ICARDA as an example.

Walking the talk – China leads
In Phase I, GCP’s interaction with China was more limited and at micro or project level, mostly on germplasm characterisation and exchange, and with project leadership by the CGIAR and developed country partners. Phase II will be focused on broader, macro, large-impact issues, and will also see a fundamental shift in partner roles. “We want developing countries to take the lead in Phase II, with the CGIAR Centres and partners in developed countries supporting the work as mentors,” said Dr Ribaut.

The Chinese wheat CI is led by Dr Ruilian Jing (pictured right) of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS). All in all, six institutes are working on this initiative. Four are in China: CAAS (incorporating the Institute of Crop Science and National Key Facility for Crop GeneRuilian-Jing Resources and Genetic Improvement), the Hebei Academy of Agricultural Sciences (HAAS), Shanxi Academy of Agricultural Sciences (SAAS) and the Xinjiang Academy of Agricultural Sciences (XAAS), with the Plant Breeding Institute of the University of Sydney, Australia and CIMMYT in a mentoring and support role. CAAS is also investing both funds and in-kind contributions to this initiative. Several postgraduate students who will be working on the project also attended the meeting. Altogether, CAAS has about 3,000 postgraduate students.

At the close of the meeting, Dr Carmen de Vicente, GCP’s Leader for Capacity building and enabling delivery, expressed GCP’s confidence in the Chinese team: “This is the right project, in the right place with the right people. The project is in good hands. It is particularly encouraging to see the strong institutional support from the Chinese government.” The team includes several distinguished scientists who in December 2009 received the National Science and Technology Progress Award from the Chinese government in recognition of their work on germplasm enhancement, breeding and application of winter wheat with drought resistance and high water-use efficiency in northern China. The award was to – among others – Ruilian Jing, Meirong Sun, Xiumin Chen and Pingxiao Chang.

Dr de Vicente stressed GCP’s role as a project partner, and not simply a funder, “We are committed to see this project succeed, and GCP will provide all the necessary technical backstopping, support, tools and guidance.”

Bringing the ‘Top Two’ together and banking in the future
Reiterating the importance of the wheat in Asia Challenge Initiative, Dr Ribaut noted that the wheat CI was the flagship of GRichard-T_CI-wheat-launchCP’s CI approach, given the population in India and China, the capacity and infrastructure in both nations, and therefore the great impact the work would have, especially with the ‘Big Two’ in Asia working together as the project envisioned. However, he was quick to add that GCP’s CI approach is not about large impacts in the short term. Rather, what GCP hopes to demonstrate is definitive proof-of-concept of the power of molecular breeding to increase crop productivity, thereby improving food security. Other agencies can then upscale and outscale the proven concept at the national, or even at the regional level.

In his concluding remarks, Dr Ribaut stressed the critical importance of germplasm exchange and good data management, and reminded participants to use the MBP, whose clients will include all the seven CIs. “This is your platform,” he emphasised. The project’s genotyping and data management components will be conducted through the MBP.

The project timelines and milestones will be adjusted based on consultations during the launch meetings. “Now we all know and understand what we need to do. Let’s go out and do it!” concluded Dr Trethowan (pictured above).

China Wheat CI Launch Workshop participants


Back row (from left to right): Chai Yongfeng, Li Xiurong, Chen Xinmin, Larry Bulter, Qiao Wenchen, Chen Xiumin, Li Kejiang, Antonia Okono, Jing Ruilian, He Zhonghu, Sun Meirong, Wu Zhenlu, Han Nanping, Mao xinguo, Zhang Yueqiang and Chang Xiaoping
Middle row (from left to right): Francis Ogbonnaya, Peter Langridge, Carmen de Vicente, Feng Dongxin, Jean-Marcel Ribaut, Wang Shumin, Xavier Delannay and Richard Trethowan
Front row (from left to right): Zhang Junling, Li Ang, Shi Wei, Wang Zhenghang, Wang Zhilan, Liu Xiulin and Chang Jianzhong

Photo by Zhang Jianan

About the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP)

Created by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in 2003 as a time-bound 10-year Programme, the mission of the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP) is to use genetic diversity and advanced plant science to improve crops by adding value to breeding for drought-prone and harsh environments. This is achieved through a network of more than 200 partners (as of 2009) drawn from CGIAR Centres, academia, regional and national research programmes, and capacity enhancement to assist developing world researchers to tap into a broader and richer pool of plant genetic diversity. In this way, GCP strives to ensure that crops improved by cutting-edge research will reach farmers in the developing world. In Phase I (2004-2008), GCP worked on 18 crops, while in Phase II (2009-2013), the main focus is on improving seven key crops for drought-tolerance. GCP has an annual budget of about USD 15 million, through the generosity of various funders, and primarily sources funding through the CGIAR. GCP's major funders are the European Commission (EC), the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the World Bank - they jointly contribute about 90 percent of our total income.