He attributes this revolution in large part to GCP, saying it “played the role of catalyst. It got things started. It set the foundation. Now we are in a position to do further molecular breeding in chickpeas.”
Led by Pooran, researchers from India, Ethiopia and Kenya worked together not only to develop improved, drought-tolerant chickpeas that would thrive in semiarid conditions, but also to ensure these varieties would be growing in farmers’ fields across Africa within a decade.
The 10-year Generation Challenge Programme, with the goal of improving food security in developing countries, aimed to leave plant genetic assets as an important part of its legacy.
Diagnostic, or informative, molecular markers – which act like ‘tags’ for beneficial genes scientists are looking for – are an increasingly important genetic tool for breeders in developing resilient, improved varieties, and have been a key aspect of GCP’s research.
Chickpeas, ready to harvest.
What is a diagnostic molecular marker?
Developments in plant genetics over the past 10–15 years have provided breeders with powerful tools to detect beneficial traits of plants much more quickly than ever before.
Scientists can identify individual genes and explore which ones are responsible for, or contribute to, valuable characteristics such as tolerance to drought or poor soils, or resistance to pests or diseases.
Once a favourable gene for a target agronomic trait is discovered and located in the plant’s genome, the next step is to find a molecular marker that will effectively tag it. A molecular marker is simply a variation in the plant’s DNA sequence that can be detected by scientists using any of a range of methods. When one of these genetic variants is found close on the genome to a gene of interest (or even within the gene itself), it can be used to indicate the gene’s presence.
To use an analogy, think of a story as the plant’s genome: its words are the plant’s genes, and a molecular marker works like a text highlighter. Molecular markers are not precise enough to highlight specific words (genes), but they can highlight sentences (genomic regions) that contain these words, making it easier and quicker to identify whether or not they are present.
Once a marker is found to be associated with a gene, or multiple genes, and determined to be significant to a target trait, it is designated an informative marker, diagnostic marker or predictive marker. Some simple traits such as flower colour are controlled by one gene, but more complex traits such as drought tolerance are controlled by multiple genes. Diagnostic markers enable plant breeders to practise molecular breeding.
Breeders use markers to predict plant traits
Hard work: a Ugandan bean farmer’s jembe, or hoe.
In the process known as marker-assisted selection, plant breeders use diagnostic molecular markers early in the breeding process to determine whether plants they are developing will have the desired qualities. By testing only a small amount of seed or seedling tissue, breeders are able to choose the best parent plants for crossing, and easily see which of the progeny have inherited useful genes. This considerably shortens the time it takes to develop new crop varieties.
“We use diagnostic markers to check for favourable genes in plants under selection. If the genes are present, we grow the seed or plant and observe how the genes are expressed as plant characteristics in the field [phenotyping]; if the genes are not present, we throw the seed or plant away,” explains Steve Beebe, a leading bean breeder with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and GCP’s Product Delivery Coordinator for beans.
“This saves us resources and time, as instead of a growing few thousand plants to maturity, most of which would not possess the gene, by using markers to make our selection we need to grow and phenotype only a few hundred plants which we know have the desired genes.”
GCP supported 25 projects to discover and develop markers for genes that control traits that enable key crops, including bean and chickpea, to tolerate drought and poor soils and resist pests and diseases.
Genomic resources, including genetic maps and genotyping datasets, were developed during GCP’s first phase (2004–2008) and were then used in molecular-breeding projects during the second five years of the Programme (2009–2014).
“GCP’s philosophy was that we have, in breeding programmes, genomic resources that can be utilised. Now we are well placed, and we should be able to continue even after GCP with our molecular-breeding programme,” says Pooran.
A small selection of the rice diversity in the International Rice Research Institute gene bank – raw material for the creation of genomic resources.
Markers developed for drought tolerance
With climate change making droughts more frequent and severe, breeding for drought tolerance was a key priority for GCP from its inception.
Different plants may use similar strategies to tolerate drought, for example, having longer roots or reducing water loss from leaves. But drought tolerance is a complex trait to breed, as in each crop a large number of genes are involved.
Wheat, for example, has many traits – each controlled by different genes – that allow the crop to tolerate extreme temperature and/or lack of moisture. Identifying drought tolerance in wheat is therefore a search for many genes. In the particular case of wheat, this search is compounded by its genetic make-up, which is one of the most complex in the plant kingdom.
The difficulty of identifying genes that play a significant role in drought tolerance makes it all the more impressive when researchers successfully collaborate to overcome these challenges. GCP-supported scientists were able to develop and use diagnostic markers in chickpea, rice, sorghum and wheat to breed for drought tolerance. The first new drought-tolerant varieties bred using marker-assisted selection have already been released to farmers in Africa and Asia and are making significant contributions to food and income security.
Tanzanian sorghum farmer.
Markers developed for pests and diseases
A bumper harvest of cassava roots at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria.
Cassava mosaic disease (CMD) is the biggest threat to cassava production in Africa – where more cassava is grown and eaten than any other crop. A principal source of CMD resistance is CMD2, a dominant gene that confers high levels of resistance.
Nigerian GCP-supported researchers worked on identifying and validating diagnostic markers that are associated with CMD2. These markers are being used in marker-assisted selection work to transfer CMD resistance to locally-adapted, farmer-preferred varieties.
In the common bean, GCP-supported researchers identified genes for resistance to pests such as bean stem maggot in Ethiopia, as well as diseases such as the common mosaic necrosis potyvirus and common bacterial blight, which reduce bean quality and yields and in some cases means total crop losses.
Markers developed for acidic and saline soils
Sifting rice in Nepal.
Aluminium toxicity and phosphorus deficiency, caused by imbalanced nutrient availability in acid soils, are major factors in inhibiting crop productivity throughout the world. Aluminium toxicity also exacerbates the effects of drought by inhibiting root growth.
Diagnostic markers for genes that confer tolerance to high levels of aluminium and improve phosphorus uptake were identified in sorghum, maize and rice. The markers linked to these two sets of similar major genes have been used efficiently in breeding programmes in Africa and Asia.
Diagnostic molecular markers are, in their most essential form, data. That means they are easily stored and maintained as data in publicly accessible databases and publications. Breeders can now access the molecular markers developed for various crops through the Integrated Breeding Platform – a web-based one-stop shop for integrated breeding information (including genetic resources), tools and support, which was established by GCP and is now continuing independently following GCP’s close – in order to design and carry out breeding projects.
“We could not have done that much in developing genomic resources without GCP support,” says Pooran. “Now the breeding products are coming; the markers are strengthening our work; and you will see in the next five to six years more products coming from molecular breeding.
“For me, GCP has improved the efficiency of the breeding programme – that is the biggest advantage.”
By 2050, the global demand for food will nearly double, numbers of farmers are predicted to decrease and the amount of suitable farmland is not expected to expand. To meet these challenges, farmers will rely on plant breeders becoming more efficient at producing crop varieties that are higher yielding and more resilient.
The Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP), established by the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP), provides plant breeders with state-of-the-art, modern breeding tools and management techniques to increase agricultural productivity and breeding efficiency. Its work democratises and facilitates the adoption of these tools and techniques across world regions and economies, from emerging national programmes to well-established companies. In particular, it is helping to bridge the technological and scientific gap prevailing in developing countries by providing purpose-built informatics, capacity-building opportunities and crop-specific expertise to support the adoption of best practice by breeders, including the use of molecular technologies. This will help reduce the time and resources required to develop improved varieties for farmers.
IBP is certainly a winner for maize breeder Thanda Dhliwayo of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT): “IBP is the only publicly available integrated breeding data-management system. I see a lot of potential in increasing efficiency and genetic gain of public breeding programmes,” he says.
For Graham McLaren, who was GCP’s Bioinformatics and Crop Information Sub-Programme Leader, an informatics system is vital for advancing the adoption of modern breeding strategies and the use of molecular technologies.
“One of the biggest constraints to the successful deployment of molecular technologies in public plant breeding, especially in the developing world, is a lack of access to informatics tools to track samples, manage breeding logistics and data, and analyse and support breeding decisions,” says Graham, who is now IBP Deployment Manager for Eastern and Southern Africa.
This is why IBP was set up, explains Graham: “We want to put informatics tools in the hands of breeders – be they in the public or private sector, including small- and medium-scale enterprises – because we know they can make a huge difference.”
Breeders access IBP’s services through its Web Portal.
Handling big data
Knowledge is power, making data are almost a crucial a raw material for plant breeding as seeds. To make good choices about which plants to use, breeders need information from thousands of plant lines about a wide range plant of characteristics, usually collected during field trials or greenhouse experiments, in a process known as phenotyping. Effective information management is therefore critical in the success of a breeding programme. IBP tackles these crucial information management issues, and many of its current users are finding it invaluable for handling their phenotypic data. IBP also aims to facilitate the use of molecular-breeding techniques, which require genetic as well as phenotypic information (see box), and support users in integrating these into their breeding process.
The advent and implementation of molecular breeding has increased breeders’ efficiency and capacity to generate new varieties – although the inclusion of genetic data has also added to the amount of information that breeders need to handle.
An abundant harvest of nutrient-enriched cassava in Nigeria.
“Prior to molecular breeding, we would record our observations of how plants performed in the field [phenotypic data] in a paper field book; we would either file the book away or re-enter the data into an Excel spreadsheet,” says Adeyemi (Yemi) Olojede, Assistant Director and Coordinator in charge of the Cassava Research Programme at the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) in Nigeria and Crop Database Manager for NRCRI’s GCP-funded projects.
“We still need to phenotype, but molecular-breeding techniques allow us to select for plant characteristics early in the breeding process by analysing the plant’s genotype to see if it has genes associated with desirable traits,” says Yemi. Groundwork is needed in order to make this possible: “This means we need to analyse the data of each plant’s genetic make-up as well as the phenotypic data so we can verify whether certain genes are responsible for the traits we observe.”
By using molecular markers to make certain which plants have useful genes right from the start – simply by testing a tiny bit of seed or seedling tissue – breeders and agronomists like Yemi can carefully select which ‘parent’ plants to use. These are then crossed in just the same way as in conventional breeding, but using only the most promising parents makes each generation is a much bigger step forward. Another advantage for breeders is that they do not necessarily have to grow all of the progeny from each set of crosses – usually thousands – all the way to maturity to see which plants have inherited the traits they are interested in.
The IBP Breeding Management System makes it much easier for breeders to manage their data and make good use of both phenotypic and genotypic information. The Crossing Manager function facilitates the planning and tracking of crosses.
All of this makes breeding more efficient, reducing the time and cost associated with field trials and cutting the cumulative time it takes to breed new varieties by half or more. The end result is that farmers get the new crop varieties they need more quickly.
Keeping track of masses of information has always been a headache for breeders. However, the increased burden of data management that molecular breeding brings – together with the need to be able to carry out specialised genotypic analysis (study of the genetic make-up of an organism) – has proved to be a limitation for many public national breeding programmes such as NRCRI. These have consequently struggled to adopt molecular-breeding techniques as readily as the private sector.
Wanting to overcome this limitation as part of its mission to advance plant science and improve crops for greater food security in the developing world, in 2009 GCP gave Graham McLaren the momentous task of overseeing the development of the Integrated Breeding Platform.
Clearing the bottleneck
The IBP Web Portal provides information and access to services and crop-specific community spaces. These help breeders design and carry out integrated breeding projects, using conventional breeding methods combined with and enhanced by marker-assisted selection methods. The Portal also provides access to downloadable informatics tools, particularly the Breeding Management System (BMS).
While there are multiple analytical and data-management systems on the market for plant breeders, what sets the BMS apart is its availability to breeders in developing countries and its integrated approach. Within a single software suite, breeders are able to manage all their activities, from choosing which plants to cross to setting up field trials.
Graham explains that IBP has brought together all the basic tools that a breeder needs to carry out day-to-day logistics, data management and analysis, and decision support. “We’ve worked with different breeders to develop a whole suite of tools – the BMS – that can be configured to support their various needs,” explains Graham. “Having all the tools in one place allows breeders to move from one tool to the next during their breeding activities, without complex data manipulation. We’ve also set up the system for others to develop and share their tools, so that it can continue to grow with new innovative ideas.”
The IBP Breeding Management System has a complete range of interconnected tools. The Germplasm Lists Manager supports breeders in managing their sets of breeding materials.
Another feature of the Platform is that it provides breeders with access to genotyping services to allow them to do marker-assisted breeding. This is particularly useful for breeders in developing countries, who often don’t have the capacity to do this work. “It’s about giving all breeders the opportunity to enhance the way they do their job, without breaking the budget,” says Graham.
A unique and holistic component of IBP is the Platform’s community-focused tools. “IBP is as much about sharing knowledge as it is about managing data,” says Graham. “We’ve integrated social media to allow anybody with an interest in breeding, say, cowpeas, to join the cowpea community. They needn’t necessarily be a collaborator; they just have to have an interest in breeding cowpeas. They could read about what’s going on, contact people in the community and say ‘I’ve seen results for your trial. Could you send me some seed because I think it will do well in my region?’ or ‘Could you please further explain the breeding method you used?’ That’s what we hope to inspire with those communities.”
Graham concedes that this aspiration for the Platform has not yet been fully realised. However, he is hopeful that by providing training, coupled with the support from several key institutes and breeders, these communities will help to increase adoption of IBP and its tools.
“We are well aware that this Platform will be a big step for a lot of breeders out there, and they will need to invest time and patience into learning how to adapt it to their circumstances,” says Graham. “However, this short-term investment will save them time and money in the long term by making their process a lot more efficient.”
For Guoyou Ye, a senior scientist with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), participating in IBP meant that he has gained a lot more understanding about the needs of breeders in developing countries for user-friendly tools.
“I started to spend time doing something for the resource-poor breeders. This has resulted in many invitations by breeding programmes in different countries to conduct training, and has given me a chance to establish a network for future work. I also had the chance to work with internationally well-known scientists and informatics specialists,” he says.
Freshly threshed rice in India.
Providing help where it is needed
Yemi Olojede is another person who has been championing IBP, and his focus has been in Nigeria and other African countries. He spent time at GCP’s headquarters in Mexico in 2012 to sharpen his data-management skills and provide user insights on the cassava database. “I enjoy working with the IBP team,” says Yemi. “They pay attention to what we [agronomists and breeders] want and are determined to resolve the issues we raise.”
Yemi has also helped the IBP team run workshops for plant breeders throughout Africa.
He recounts that attendees were always fascinated by IBP and the BMS, but cautious about the effort required to learn how to use it. They were pleased, though, when they received step-by-step ‘how to’ manuals to help them train other breeders in their institutes, with additional support to be provided by IBP or Yemi’s team in Nigeria.
“We told them if they had any challenges, they could call us and we would help them,” says Yemi. “I feel this extra support is a good thing for the future of this project, as it will build confidence in the people we teach. They can then go back to their research institutes and train their colleagues, who are more likely to listen and learn from them than from someone else.”
IBP is continuing to run these training courses, through newly established regional hubs in Africa and Asia.
He says the hubs provide localised support in the use of IBP tools: “Their role is to champion IBP in their region,” says Mark. “They can take advantage of their established relationships and skills to help new users adopt the Platform. This includes providing education and training, technical support for IBP tools, and encouraging users to build their networks through the crop communities.”
IBP Regional Hubs worldwide.
Breeding rice and maize more efficiently using IBP
For Mounirou El-Hassimi Sow, a rice breeder from the Africa Rice Center, IBP is more than just a tool that helps him manage his data: “I’m seeing the whole world of rice breeders as a small village where I can talk to everyone,” he says.
“Through IBP, I have access to this great network of people, who I would never have met, who I can refer to when I have some challenges.”
Social networking tools are a novel feature incorporated into IBP to further develop the capacity of breeders like Mounirou. IBP hosts a number of crop-based and technical Communities of Practice that were established by GCP. These have nurtured relationships between breeders across different countries and organisations, encouraging knowledge sharing and support for young scientists.
Another way GCP has promoted and developed capacity to use IBP and molecular-breeding techniques is through training. Starting in April 2012, the Integrated Breeding Multiyear Course (IB–MYC) trained 150 plant breeders and technicians from Africa and Asia. The participants attended three two-week intensive face-to-face training workshops spread over three years, with assignments and ongoing support between sessions.
Roland Bocco (Africa Rice center, Benin), Dinesh K. Agarwal (ICAR, India) and Susheel K. Sarkar (ICAR, India) work together on a statistics assignment during their final workshop of the Integrated Breeding Multiyear Course (IB–MYC).
Mounirou participated in the course and says it provided him with the opportunity to learn more about molecular breeding and practice using the associated management and data analysis tools. “I had learnt about the tools in university and seen them on the Internet, but I did not know how to use them,” says Mounirou. “During the first year, we learnt about the theory and how the tools work. During the second and third years, we were comfortable enough with the tools to use our own data and troubleshoot this with the tutors. This was great and provided me with confirmation that these tools were applicable and useful for my work.”
Mounirou says he is now sharing what he learnt during the course with his co-workers and other plant breeders in Africa. “Since the Africa Rice Center became a regional hub for IBP, I’ve volunteered to help train rice breeders. It’s great to be able to share what I learnt and help them realise how this tool will help make their work so much easier.”
A maize farmer and community-based seed producer in Kenya.
Another IB–MYC trainee, Murenga Geoffrey Mwimali, a maize breeder from the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO), is also helping his networks to benefit from IBP. “When I returned from the training, I took the initiative to demonstrate the Platform to the management of my organisation, to show them that it is what we need to implement at the institute level. They were overwhelmingly positive, and we are working on running a training course for other researchers in the organisation to learn how to use the Platform.”
Jean-Marcel Ribaut, GCP and IBP Director, says these championing efforts are exactly what GCP and IBP were hoping IB–MYC would initiate. “By providing this initial intensive training to these selected participants, we felt this groundswell of capacity would slowly grow once they built their confidence,” says Jean-Marcel. “That young researchers like these feel they are competent and obligated to share what they learnt is a true credit to the product and the participants.”
Following GCP’s close in December 2014, IBP will continue to develop and improve over the next five years, with funding primarily originating from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. While the priority has been on informatics and service development in Phase I, the main focus of Phase II will be to concentrate on deployment and adoption. In the long term, the Platform is seeking further ongoing funding, and also looking into implementing some form of user-contribution for specialised or consulting services.
“We wanted to develop a tool to provide developing countries with access to modern breeding technologies, breeding materials and related information in a centralised and practical manner, which would help them adopt molecular-breeding approaches and improve their plant-breeding efficiency,” says Jean-Marcel. “I believe we have achieved this and at the same time built a tool that will prove very useful for commercial companies too. If we want the tool to continue to be affordable and sustainable for developing countries, then we have to look at ways of finding new sources of funding and of making revenue to offset the costs.”
Stewart Andrews, IBP Business Manager, is helping to make this happen.
“What we are looking at is a tiered membership system in the private sector, where enterprises would pay more the larger they are,” explains Stewart. “This would also be dependent on where in the world they are, with enterprises in Europe and North America contributing proportionately more financially than those in developing countries. This will help us to continue investing in our solutions while keeping them accessible to national programmes and universities in developing countries at little to no fee.”
For Jean-Marcel, creating a commercial stream for IBP services is a win for all parties. “If we are able to generate revenue we can not only provide sustainable support and offset the cost for poorer institutes, we can also continue to develop and improve the BMS software suite so that it becomes the tool of choice all over the world. In terms of social responsibility, the corporate world can play an essential role in this not only as donors but even more effectively as clients and users – adopting the BMS makes good business sense.”
Stewart says a sustainable income is vital for providing training and assistance. “We currently have about 7,000 researchers in the developing world who get this software for free, and each week we get 20–25 requests for help, assistance and training. This support costs money but is indispensable, particularly for those in the developing world who are trying to implement molecular breeding for the first time. You have to remember that this software is all part of a revolution in terms of plant breeding, so we need to provide as much assistance as we can if these breeders are going to buy into molecular breeding and all of its benefits.”
The IBP team is convinced that rolling out IBP will have a significant impact on plant breeding in developing countries.
Indeed, so far there have been more than 1,300 unique downloads of the BMS, with at least 250 early adopters worldwide using the software suite across their day-to-day breeding activities. The Platform’s strategy now builds on three regional teams (West and Central Africa, Eastern and Southern Africa, and South and South East Asia), each including experienced breeders and data managers. With the help of local representatives at seven well-established Regional Hubs to date (with more Hubs in development), this strategy has thus far yielded commitments from six African countries at the national level; from 24 Institutes spanning 58 breeding programmes at different stages of the adoption process; from 14 Universities where faculty members are using and/or teaching the BMS, partially or entirely; and from 134 “champions” engaged in the deployment plans and in supporting their peers.
“Because IBP has a very wide application, it will speed up crop improvement in many parts of the world and in many different environments. What this means is that new crop varieties will be developed in a more rapid and therefore more efficient manner,” concludes Graham.
Humans are a protective species. We like to hoard away our precious items in vaults and safes made of concrete and steel, safe from thieves and catastrophes.
One not-so-obvious precious item, which many people take for granted, is seed. Without seeds, farmers would not be able to grow the grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits we eat.
For centuries, farmers have harvested seeds to store and protect for planting the following year. Most of the time, farmers will only keep seeds harvested from plants that have excelled in their environment – that have produced high yields or have favourable qualities such as larger or tastier grain. This simple iterative process of selecting primarily for high yields means that many crops today are closely related genetically, which can make them more vulnerable to evolving diseases and pests.
Without diversity, a severe epidemic can completely wipe out a farmer’s crop — and even a whole region’s crop. One of the best-known historical examples of just such a disastrous crop failure is the Irish Potato Famine of the 19th century, when potato blight disease caused extensive death, human suffering and social upheaval. A number of crops around the world are in similar danger today, including wheat, threatened by the Ug99 strain of stem rust disease, to which almost all the world’s wheat is susceptible, and cassava, menaced by African cassava mosaic virus (ACMV).
The solution – genetic diversity
Plant breeders are looking at ways to increase diversity among cultivated crops, mitigating the risks of pests and diseases and introducing genes that help plants thrive in their local environments. To do this they are looking for useful traits in traditional cultivars, related species and wild ancestors. Such traits may include tolerance to drought, heat, and poor soils as well as insect and disease resistance. Breeders cross these donor parents with high-yielding elite breeding lines. The resulting new varieties have all the preferred traits of their parents and none of the deficiencies.
The genetic diversity of crops and their wild relatives is held by gene banks. There are thousands of gene banks worldwide, which collect and store seeds from hundreds of thousands of varieties. Breeders and researchers submit seed and tissue of wild and cultivated varieties as well as of lines of new varieties they are trying to breed.
Staff hard at work in the medium-term storage room of the International Rice Genebank at IRRI.
“For years, gene banks were primarily repositories, but with genetics evolving, and its subsequent application in plant breeding growing over the past 10 years, breeders and geneticists are now mining gene banks for wild and exotic species that might have favourable genes for desired traits,” explains Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, evolutionary biologist and head of the International Rice Genebank maintained by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at its headquarters in The Philippines.
Sifting through all these gene-bank collections for plants with desired traits is challenging for breeders, even for traits that are easy to select for through visual screening. For example, Ruaraidh says the rice collection held at the International Rice Genebank contains more than 117,000 different types of rice, or accessions.
In recognition of this challenge, the initial rationale of the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme’s (GCP) genetic stocks activity was to make the diversity in gene banks more easily accessible and practical for the study – and application – of genetic diversity.
Taking stock of genetic stocks
The first step towards making diversity accessible to breeders was to develop reference sets, representing as much genetic diversity as possible within a small proportion of gene bank accessions, selected through pedigree and molecular marker information.
“A reference set represents the whole diversity found in the collections. Breeders can then use this sample to make crosses with their preferred varieties to try and integrate specific genes from the reference-set lines into those varieties.”
A trainee at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) shows off diverse wheat ears, a small sample of the thousands of different lines found in the centre’s gene bank.
A further aspect of the work was the development of data-kits, which included molecular markers used to genotype and verify the sets. These kits allow plant scientists to assess and compare the diversity of their own collections with that of the reference sets, thus facilitating the introduction of new diversity in their prebreeding programmes.
Jean Christophe says the reference sets and data-kits were pivotal to the success of GCP’s molecular-breeding projects as they allowed researchers in different institutes to simultaneously work on the same genetic materials. “The sets served as consistent reference material that everybody collaborating on the project could analyse,” he explains. “Some of these collaborations involved hundreds of researchers, particularly those projects seeking to map genomes and identify genes.”
During the second phase of GCP (2009–2014), the reference sets for GCP’s Phase II target crops (cassava, chickpea, common bean, cowpea, groundnut, maize, rice, sorghum and wheat) were thoroughly phenotyped under different environments, including biotic and abiotic stresses. Jean Christophe says this work helped to identify new alleles (alternative forms of a gene or genetic locus) associated with desired traits that could be used for breeding purposes. Reference sets have been used successfully to identify and use new plant material in breeding programmes to improve various traits, particularly disease resistance and even more complex traits such as drought tolerance in cassava, chickpea, cowpea, maize, sorghum and wheat.
Broadening groundnut’s genetic base to prevent disease
A farmer in Senegal shows off her groundnut crop, almost ripe for harvest.
Another objective of GCP’s genetic stocks activity was to create new diversity within domesticated cultivated crops that have narrow genetic diversity, such as groundnut.
“The groundnuts we grow today are not too dissimilar to the ones that were first created naturally five to six thousand years ago,” says David Bertioli, a plant geneticist at the University of Brasília, Brazil. “This means that they are genetically very similar and have a narrow genetic base – the narrowest of any cultivated crop.”
This genetic similarity means that all cultivated groundnuts are very susceptible to diseases, particularly leaf spot, requiring expensive agrochemicals, especially fungicides. Without agrochemicals, which smallholder farmers in Africa and Asia often cannot afford, yields can be very low.
David says groundnut breeders always recognised the need to increase diversity, but because cultivated groundnuts have had a narrow base for so long, they became radically different from their wild relatives, making it very difficult to successfully cross wild species with cultivated species.
New genetic diversity is created through recombination, that is, through crossing contrasting varieties to create novel lines. Researchers can study these recombinants to identify genes associated with desired traits or use them in further crosses to develop new varieties.
“One of our first jobs was to make wild-species recombinants to trace out the relatedness of the wild-species genomes,” says David. “Once we could see the relatedness, we could see which wild species we could cross with cultivated lines. We had to do a lot of these crosses, but we eventually started to broaden the genetic diversity of the cultivated lines.”
“That gave us an even greater understanding of the genetic structure, which is laying the groundwork for new varieties with traits such as added disease resistance and drought tolerance,” says David.
An additional key outcome of the groundnut aspect of the Legumes Research Initiative was developing ‘wild × domesticated’ synthetic lines, which are being crossed with domesticated groundnut varieties in Malawi, Niger, Senegal and Tanzania to introduce higher drought tolerance.
Like many areas of Africa struck by climate change, this village in Tanzania is suffering the effects of drought, with temperature increases and increasingly unpredictable rainfall.
Genetic gain by exploiting genetic stocks
The genetic stocks activity has generated a large and diverse array of resources across GCP’s target crops, not just for groundnut.
Recombinant inbred lines (RILs) incorporating specific traits of interest – particularly drought tolerance – have been developed for cowpea, maize, rice, sorghum and wheat. RILs are stabilised genetic stocks, created over several years by crossing two inbred lines followed by repeated generations of sibling mating to produce inbred lines that are genetically identical. These can then be used to discover and verify the role of particular genes and groups of genes associated with desired traits.
Near-isogenic lines (NILs) are RILs that possess identical genetic codes, except for differences at a few specific genetic loci. This enables researchers to evaluate particular genes and groups of genes that they may want to incorporate into breeding lines, particularly genes that have come from plants that otherwise do not perform well agronomically, such as wild relatives or older varieties. Sorghum NILs incorporating the AltSB locus for aluminium tolerance are being tested in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger on problematic acid soils.
Multiparent advanced generation intercross (MAGIC) populations are a form of recombinants developed from crossing several parental lines from different genetic origins and, in some cases, exotic backgrounds to maximise the mix of genes from the parental lines in the offspring. MAGIC populations have been developed for chickpea, cowpea, rice and sorghum, and are being developed for common bean. Selected parental lines have been used to combine elite alleles for simple traits such as aluminium tolerance in sorghum and submergence tolerance in rice, as well as for complex traits such as drought or heat tolerance.
The further evaluation and use of the genetic stocks stemming from GCP-supported projects, as well as the generation of new genetic stocks, will continue beyond GCP through CGIAR’s Research Programs as well as through those institutes and national breeding programmes associated with GCP. There will be a continuing and evolving need to identify new genes associated with desired traits to improve cultivated germplasm.
Transplanting rice plants in Myanmar.
Sustaining genetic stocks into the future
Sustainability of genetic stocks has always been an issue, as stocks are generally not managed in a centralised way but are left under the direct responsibility of the scientists who developed them. These resources have therefore usually been handled in a highly ad hoc manner.
Because of high staff turnover in CGIAR Centers and breeding programmes in developing countries, and also because their management is neither centralised nor coordinated, these resources are also often lost as staff move from one organisation to another.
Although different genetic resources require different management protocols and storage timelines, the idea that gene bank curators take on the management of genetic stocks was proposed several years ago. For Centers such as IRRI, this is already a reality – for at least some of the genetic resources developed.
However, with the growing popularity of tapping into the rich diversity in gene banks that GCP’s genetic stocks activity has helped drive, gene bank supervisors such as Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton are concerned about how genetic stocks will be sustained.
“The more popular molecular breeding and genetic stock become, the more funds we need to help us curate and disseminate them,” says Ruaraidh. He proposes to recover costs for managing genetic resources through a chargeback system on a two-tier scale, with non-profit organisations receiving stock at lower costs than commercial organisations. “Such a system would be sustainable and reduce the burden on gene bank institutes,” he says.
Still, the costs are of concern to institutes, particularly CGIAR Centers, which maintain most of the world’s plant crop gene banks.
“In both of the CGIAR Centers I worked in,” says Dave, “we always maintained the position that if the Center were to shut down, the last thing we’d do would be to turn out the lights of the gene bank. Even when we had funding cuts, we would never cut the budget for the gene bank.”
At work in the maize active collection in the gene bank at CIMMYT, which keeps maize and wheat diversity in trust for the world.
“The Trust is a financial mechanism to raise an endowment, to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity,” says Charlotte Lusty, Genebank Programmes Coordinator at the Global Crop Diversity Trust. “The new programme is an extension of the Trust’s work. We aim to raise a USD 500 million endowment by 2016. The interest from this will be divided between the CGIAR Centers to cover all their long-term conservation operations.”
The new programme is also reviewing how gene banks within CGIAR are being managed, with a view to developing a quality management system, which it hopes will make gene banks run more efficiently. Charlotte says it is also encouraging stronger gene banks, such as IRRI and CIMMYT, to lend their expertise and experience to smaller gene banks so they can meet and build on their management quality.
Dave Hoisington believes that the new programme will provide CGIAR’s gene banks with greater capacity and make them even more attractive for researchers wanting to make use of their rich diversity.
A wide diversity of rice seed from the collection of the International Rice Genebank at IRRI.
Looking forward 30 years
Tapping into new diversity was really at the heart of GCP, and was a major, if not the primary, rationale for its establishment. Over its 10-year lifespan, has invested almost USD 28 million, or 18 percent of its budget, in developing genetic stocks, both reference sets and recombinants, for over 20 different crops.
Although these products don’t directly benefit farmers, they do indirectly help by significantly increasing breeding efficiency.
“All this research is fairly new and I am amazed, as a geneticist and plant breeder, by how far we’ve come since GCP started in 2004,” says David Bertioli.
“What we’ve been able to do in groundnut – that is, broaden the genetic base – hasn’t occurred naturally or through conventional breeding for thousands of years. And we’ve been able to do it in less than ten years.”
David recognises that the true value of the research will only be realised when new disease-resistant varieties are available for farmers to grow, which may be in five to seven years. “Only then will we be able to look back and consider the worth of all the hard work and cooperation that went into developing these precious varieties.”
GCP’s genetic stock activities have generated a large and diverse array of resources. These resources lay the foundation for further genetic stock development and will aid in researchers’ quests to tap into genetic diversity well into the future.
The Institute was a source of valuable partnerships with highly regarded agricultural scientists and researchers, as well as of germplasm and genetic resources from its gene bank. With assistance from GCP, these resources have enabled scientists and crop breeders throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America to achieve crop improvements for chickpea, groundnut, pearl millet, pigeonpea and sorghum, all of which are staple crops that millions of people depend upon for survival.
“The philosophy of GCP at the start was to tap into and use the genomic recourses we had in our gene banks to develop ICRISAT’s and our partners’ breeding programmes,” says Pooran Gaur, GCP’s Product Delivery Coordinator for chickpeas, and Principal Scientist for chickpea genetics and breeding at ICRISAT.
ICRISAT’s gene bank is a global repository of crop genetic diversity. It contains 123,023 germplasm accessions – in the form of seed samples – assembled from 144 countries, making it one of the largest gene banks in the world.
The collection serves as insurance against genetic loss and as a source of resistance to diseases and pests, tolerance to climatic and other environmental stresses, and improved quality and yield traits for crop breeding.
Pooran says the ultimate goal of the GCP–ICRISAT partnership was to use the resources in the gene bank to develop drought-tolerant varieties that would thrive in semi-arid conditions and to make these varieties available to farmers’ fields within a decade.
Harvesting sorghum in Kenya.
Setting a foundation for higher yielding, drought-tolerant chickpeas
Pooran was involved with GCP from its beginning in 2004 and was instrumental in coordinating chickpea projects.
Chickpea harvest, India.
“GCP got things started; it set a foundation for using genomic resources to breed chickpeas,” says Pooran. During Phase I of GCP (2004–2009), ICRISAT was involved in developing reference sets for chickpeas and developing mapping populations for drought-tolerance traits. It also collaborated with 19 other international research organisations to successfully sequence the chickpea genome in 2013 – a major breakthrough that paved the way for the development of even more superior chickpea varieties to transform production in semi-arid environments.
The International Chickpea Genome Sequencing Consortium, led by ICRISAT and partly funded by GCP, identified more than 28,000 genes and several million genetic markers. Pooran says these are expected to illuminate important genetic traits that may enhance new varieties.
The trait of most interest to many chickpea breeders is drought tolerance. In recent years, droughts in the south of India, the largest producer of chickpeas, have reduced yields to less than one tonne per hectare. Droughts have also diminished chickpea yields in Ethiopia and Kenya, Africa’s largest chickpea producers and exporters to India. While total global production of chickpeas is around 8.6 million tonnes per year, drought causes losses of around 3.7 million tonnes worldwide.
Putting it to the test: Rajeev Varshney (left, see below) and Pooran Gaur (right) inspecting a chickpea field trial.
Pooran says the foundation work supported by GCP was particularly important for identifying drought-tolerance traits. “We had identified plants with early maturing traits. This allowed us to develop chickpea varieties that have more chance of escaping drought when cereal farmers produce a fast-growing crop in between the harvest and planting of their main crops,” he says.
New varieties that grow and develop more quickly are expected to play a key role in expanding the area suitable for chickpeas into new niches where the available crop-growing seasons are shorter.
“In southern India now we are already seeing these varieties growing well, and their yield is very high,” says Pooran. “In fact, productivity has increased in the south by about seven to eight times in the last 10–12 years.”
Developing capacity by involving partners in Kenya and Ethiopia
Monitoring the water use of chickpea plants in experiments at Egerton University, Njoro, Kenya.
“When we first started working on this project in mid-2007, our breeding programme was very weak,” says Paul Kimurto of the Faculty of Agriculture at Egerton University, who was Lead Scientist for chickpea research in the TLI project. “We have since accumulated a lot of germplasm, a chickpea reference set and a mapping population, all of which have greatly boosted our breeding programme.”
Paul says that with this increased capacity, his team in Kenya had released six new varieties of chickpea in the five years prior to GCP’s close at the end of 2014, and were expecting more to be ready within in the next three years.
In fields across Ethiopia, meanwhile, the introduction of new varieties has already brought a dramatic increase in productivity, with yields doubling in recent years, according to Asnake Fikre, Crop Research Directorate Director for EIAR.
Varieties like the large-seeded and high-valued kabuli have presented new opportunities for farmers to earn extra income through the export industry, and indeed chickpea exports from eastern Africa have substantially increased since 2001. This has transformed Ethiopia’s chickpeas from simple subsistence crop to one of great commercial significance.
This chickpea seller in Ethiopia says that kabuli varieties are becoming more popular.
“This will have significant impact on resource-poor communities in the semi-arid regions, because they will have the opportunity to improve their livelihoods and increase food availability,” Jean-Marcel stated in January 2012.
Pigeonpea, the grains of which make a highly nutritious and protein-rich food, is a hardy and drought-tolerant crop. It is grown in the semi-arid tropics and subtropics of Asia, Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean. This crop’s prolific seed production and tolerance to drought help reduce farmers’ vulnerability to potential food shortages during dry periods.
A pigeonpea farmer in his field in India.
The collaborative project brought together 12 participating institutes operating under the umbrella of the International Initiative for Pigeonpea Genomics. The initiative was led by Rajeev K Varshney, GCP’s Genomics Theme Leader and Director of the Center of Excellence in Genomics at ICRISAT. Other participants included BGI in Shenzhen, China; four universities; and five other advanced research entities, both private and public. The Plant Genome Research Program of the National Science Foundation, USA, also funded part of this research.
“We were able to assemble over 70 percent of the genome. This was sufficient to enable us to change breeding approaches for pigeonpea,” says Rajeev. “That is, we can now combine conventional and molecular breeding methods – something we couldn’t do as well before – and access enough genes to create many new pigeonpea varieties that will effectively help improve the food security and livelihoods of resource-poor communities.”
Pigeonpea breeders are now able to use markers for genetic mapping and trait identification, marker-assisted selection, marker-assisted recurrent selection and genomic selection. These techniques, Rajeev says, “considerably cut breeding time by doing away with several cropping cycles. This means new varieties reach dryland areas of Africa and Asia more quickly, thus improving and increasing the sustainability of food production systems in these regions.”
Several genes, unique to pigeonpea, were also identified for drought tolerance by the project. Future research may find ways of transferring these genes to other legumes in the same family – such as soybean, cowpea and common bean – helping these crops also become more drought tolerant. This would be a significant asset in view of the increasingly drier climates in these crops’ production areas.
“We cannot help but agree with William Dar, Director General of ICRISAT, who observed that the ‘mapping of the pigeonpea genome is a breakthrough that could not have come at a better time’,” says Jean-Marcel.
East African farmers inspect pigeonpea at flowering time.
Securing income-generating groundnut crops in Africa
Groundnut, otherwise known as peanut, is one of ICRISAT’s mandate crops. Groundnuts provide a key source of nutrition for Africa’s farming families and have the potential to sustain a strong African export industry in future.
“The groundnut is one of the most important income-generating crops for my country and other countries in East Africa,” says Patrick Okori, who is a groundnut breeder and Principal Scientist with ICRISAT in Malawi and who was GCP’s Product Delivery Coordinator for groundnuts.
“It’s like a small bank for many smallholder farmers, one that can be easily converted into cash, fetching the highest prices,” he says
It is the same in West Africa, according to groundnut breeder Issa Faye from the Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles (ISRA), who has been involved in GCP since 2008. “It’s very important for Senegal,” he says. “It’s the most important cash crop here – a big source of revenue for farmers around the country. Senegal is one of the largest exporters of groundnut in West Africa.”
The sequencing work has given breeders access to 96 percent of all groundnut genes and provided the molecular map needed to breed drought-tolerant and disease-resistant higher yielding varieties, faster.
Drying groundnut harvest, Mozambique.
“The wild relatives of a number of crops contain genetic stocks that hold the most promise to overcome drought and disease,” says Vincent Vadez, ICRISAT Principal Scientist and groundnut research leader for GCP’s Legumes Research Initiative. And for groundnut, these stocks have already had a major impact in generating the genetic tools that are key to making more rapid and efficient progress in crop science
Chair of GCP’s Consortium Committee, David Hoisington – formerly ICRISAT’s Director of Research and now Senior Research Scientist and Program Director at the University of Georgia – says the sequencing could be a huge step forward for boosting agriculture in developing countries.
“Researchers and plant breeders now have much better tools available to breed more productive and more resilient groundnut varieties, with improved yields and better nutrition,” he says.
These resilient varieties should be available to farmers across Africa within a few years.
Supporting key crops in West Africa
Harvested pearl millet and sorghum in Ghana.
With a focus on the semi-arid tropics, ICRISAT has been working closely with partners for 30 years to improve rainfed farming systems in West Africa. One sorghum researcher who has been working on the ground with local partners in Mali since 1998 is Eva Weltzien-Rattunde. She is an ICRISAT Principal Scientist in sorghum breeding and genetic resources, based in Mali, and was Principal Investigator for GCP’s Sorghum Research Initiative.
“Low phosphorus availability is a key problem for farmers on the coast of West Africa, and breeding phosphorus-efficient crops to cope with these conditions has been a main objective of ICRISAT in West Africa for some time,” says Eva.
“We’ve had good results in terms of field trials. We have at least 20 lines we are field testing at the moment, which we selected from 1,100 lines that we tested under high and low phosphorous conditions.” Eva says that some of these lines could be released as new varieties as early as 2015.
Ibrahima Sissoko, a data curator working with Eva’s team at ICRISAT in Mali, also adds that the collaborations and involvement with GCP have increased his and other developing country partners’ capacity in data management and statistical analysis, as well as helping to expand their network. “I can get help from other members of my sorghum community,” he says.
In summing up, Eva says: “Overall, we feel the GCP partnerships are enhancing our capacity here in Mali, and that we are closer to delivering more robust sorghum varieties that will help farmers and feed the ever-growing population in West Africa.”
Enjoying a tasty dish of sorghum.
Tom Hash, millet breeder and Principal Scientist at ICRISAT and GCP Principal Investigator for millet, shares Eva’s sentiments on GCP and the impact it is having in West Africa.
Between 2005 and 2007, GCP invested in genetic research for millet, which is the sixth most important cereal crop globally and a staple food (along with sorghum) in Burkina Faso, Chad, Eritrea, Mali, Niger, northern Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan.
With financial support from GCP, and drawing on lessons learnt from parallel GCP genetic research, including in sorghum and chickpea, ICRISAT was able to mine its considerable pearl millet genetic resources for desirable traits.
Hari D Upadhyaya, Principal Scientist and Head of Genebank at ICRISAT in India, led this task to develop and genotype a ‘composite collection’ of pearl millet. The team created a selection that strategically reduced the 21,594 accessions in the gene bank down to just 1,021. This collection includes lines developed at ICRISAT and material from other sources, with a range of valuable traits including tolerance to drought, heat and soil salinity and resistance to blast, downy mildew, ergot, rust and smut, and even resistance to multiple diseases.
The team then used molecular markers to fingerprint the DNA of plants grown from the collection.
“GCP supported collaboration with CIRAD, and our pearl millet breeding teams learnt how to do marker-based genetic diversity analysis,” says Tom. “This work, combined with the genomic resources work, did make some significant contributions to pearl millet research.”
Over 100 new varieties of pearl millet have recently been developed and released in Africa by the African Centre for Crop Improvement in South Africa, another developing country partner of ICRISAT and GCP. Tom says the initial genetic research was pivotal to this happening.
A Ghanaian farmer examines his pearl millet harvest.
From poverty to prosperity through partnerships
Patrick Okori says that GCP has enabled his organisation to make a much stronger contribution to the quality of science.
“Prior to GCP, ICRISAT was already one of the big investors in legume research, because that was its mandate. The arrival of GCP, however, expanded the number of partners that ICRISAT had, both locally and globally, through the resources, strategic meetings and partnership arrangements that GCP provided as a broad platform for engaging in genomic research and the life sciences.”
This expansion of ICRISAT, facilitated by GCP, also enabled researchers from across the world and in diverse fields to interact in ways they had never had the opportunity to before, says Vincent Vadez.
“GCP has allowed me to make contact with people working on other legumes, for example,” he says. “It has allowed us to test hypotheses in other related crops, and we’ve generated quite a bit of good science from that.”
Pooran Gaur has had a similar experience with his chickpea research at ICRISAT.
“GCP provided the first opportunity for us to work with the bean and cowpea groups, learning from each other. That cross-learning from other crops really helped us. You learn many things working together, and I think we have developed a good relationship, a good community for legumes now.”
This community environment has made the best use of an unusual variety of skills, knowledge and resources, agrees Rajeev Varshney.
“It brought together people from all kinds of scientific disciplines – from genomics, bioinformatics, biology, molecular biology and so on,” he says. “Such a pooling of complementary expertise and resources made great achievements possible.”
Maize is a staple crop for Kenyans, with 90 percent of the population depending on it for food. However, acid soils cause yield losses of 17–50 percent across the nation.
Soil acidity is a major environmental and economic concern in many more countries around the world. The availability of nutrients in soil is affected by pH, so acid conditions make it harder for plants to get a balanced diet. High acidity causes two major problems: perilously low levels of phosphorus and toxically high levels of aluminium. Aluminium toxicity affects 38 percent of farmland in Southeast Asia, 31 percent in Latin America and 20 percent in East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and North America.
Aluminium toxicity in soil comes close to rivalling drought as a food-security threat in critical tropical food-producing regions. By damaging roots, acid soils deprive plants of the nutrients and water they need to grow – a particularly bitter effect when water is scarce.
Maize, meanwhile, is one of the most economically important food crops worldwide. It is grown in virtually every country in the world, and it is a staple food for more than 1.2 billion people in developing countries across sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. In many cultures it is consumed primarily as porridge: polenta in Italy; angu in Brazil; and isitshwala, nshima, pap, posho,sadza or ugali in Africa.
Ugali, a stiff maize porridge that is a staple dish across East Africa, being prepared in Tanzania.
Maize is also a staple food for animals reared for meat, eggs and dairy products. Around 60 percent of global maize production is used for animal feed.
The world demand for maize is increasing at the same time as global populations burgeon and climate changes. Therefore, improving the ability of maize to withstand acid soils and produce higher yields with less reliable rainfall is paramount. This is why the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP) invested almost USD 12.5 million into maize research between 2004 and 2014.
GCP’s goal was to facilitate the use of genetic diversity and advanced plant science to improve food security in developing countries through the breeding of ‘super’ crops – including maize – able to tolerate drought and poor soils and resist diseases.
Researchers take on the double whammy of acid soils and drought
Part of successfully breeding higher-yielding drought-tolerant maize varieties involves improving plant genetics for acid soils. In these soils, aluminium toxicity inhibits root growth, reducing the amount of water and nutrients that the plant can absorb and compounding the effects of drought.
Improving plant root development for aluminium tolerance and phosphorous efficiency can therefore have the positive side effect of higher plant yield when water is limited.
A farmer in Tanzania shows the effects of drought on her maize crop. The maize ears are undersized with few grains.
Although plant breeders have exploited the considerable variation in aluminium tolerance between different maize varieties for many years, aluminium toxicity has been a significant but poorly understood component of plant genetics. It is a particularly complex trait in maize that involves multiple genes and physiological mechanisms.
The solution is to take stock of what maize germplasm is available worldwide, characterise it, clone the sought-after genes and implement new breeding methods to increase diversity and genetic stocks.
Marilyn Warburton, then a molecular geneticist at CIMMYT, led this GCP-funded project. Her goal was to discover how all the genetic diversity in maize gene-bank collections around the globe might be used for practical plant improvement. She first gathered samples from gene banks all over the world, including those of CIMMYT and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Scientists from developing country research centres in China, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria, Thailand and Vietnam also contributed by supplying DNA from their local varieties.
Researchers then used molecular markers and a bulk fingerprinting method – which Marilyn was instrumental in developing – for three purposes: to characterise the structure of maize populations, to better understand how maize migrated across the world, and to complete the global picture of maize biodiversity. Scientists were also using markers to search for new genes associated with desirable traits.
Allen Oppong, a maize pathologist and breeder from Ghana’s Crops Research Institute (CRI), of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, was supported by GCP from 2007 to 2010 to characterise Ghana’s maize germplasm. Trained in using the fingerprinting technique, Allen was able to identify distinctly different maize germplasm in the north of Ghana (with its dry savanna landscape) and in the south (with its high rainfall). He also identified mixed germplasm, which he says demonstrates that plant germplasm often finds its way to places where it is not suitable for optimal yield and productivity. Maize yields across the country are low.
Stocktaking a world’s worth of maize for GCP was a challenge, but not the only one, according to Marilyn. “In the first year it was hard to see how all the different partners would work together. Data analysis and storage was the hardest; everyone seemed to have their own idea about how the data could be stored, accessed and analysed best.
“The science was also evolving, even as we were working, so you could choose one way to sequence or genotype your data, and before you were even done with the project, a better way would be available,” she recalls.
Maize ears drying in Ghana.
Comparing genes: sorghum gene paves way for maize aluminium tolerance
In parallel to Marilyn’s work, scientists at the Brazilian Corporation of Agricultural Research (EMBRAPA) had already been advancing research on plant genetics for acid soils and the effects of aluminium toxicity on sorghum – spurred on by the fact that almost 70 percent of Brazil’s arable land is made up of acid soils.
What was of particular interest to GCP in 2004 was that the Brazilians, together with researchers at Cornell University in the USA, had recently mapped and identified the major sorghum aluminium tolerance locus AltSB, and were working on isolating the major gene within it with a view to cloning it. Major genes were known to control aluminium tolerance in sorghum, wheat and barley and produce good yields in soils that had high levels of aluminium. The gene had also been found in rape and rye.
GCP embraced the opportunity to fund more of this work with a view to speeding up the development of maize – as well as sorghum and rice – germplasm that can withstand the double whammy of acid soils and drought.
Maize trials in the field at EMBRAPA. The maize plants on the left are aluminium-tolerant and so able to withstand acid soils, while those on the right are not.
Leon Kochian, Director of the Robert W Holley Center for Agriculture and Health, United States Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service and Professor at Cornell University, was a Principal Investigator for various GCP research projects investigating how to improve grain yields of crops grown in acid soils. “GCP was interested in our work because we were working with such critical crops,” he says.
“The idea was to use discoveries made in the first half of the GCP’s 10-year programme – use comparative genomics to look into genes of rice and maize to see if we can see relations in those genes – and once you’ve cloned a gene, it is easier to find a gene that can work for other crops.”
By combing the maize genome searching for a similar gene to sorghum’s SbMATE, Jurandir’s EMBRAPA colleague Claudia Guimarães and a team of GCP-supported scientists discovered the maize aluminium tolerance gene ZmMATE1. High expression of this gene, first observed in maize lines with three copies of ZmMATE1, has been shown to increase aluminium tolerance. ZmMATE1 improves grain yields in acid soil by up to one tonne per hectare when introgressed in an aluminium-sensitive line.
The genetic region, or locus, containing the ZmMATE1 aluminium tolerance gene is known as qALT6. Photo 1 shows a rhyzobox containing two layers of soil: a corrected top-soil and lower soils with 15 percent aluminium saturation. On the right, near-isogenic lines (NILs) introgressed with qALT6 show deeper roots and longer secondary roots in the acidic lower soil, whereas on the left the maize line without qALT6, L53, shows roots mainly confined to the corrected top soil. Photo 2 shows maize ears from lines without qALT6 (above) and with qALT6 (below); the lines with qALT6 maintain their size and quality even under high aluminium levels of 40 percent aluminium saturation.
The outcomes of these GCP-supported research projects provided the basic materials, such as molecular markers and donor sources of the positive alleles, for molecular-breeding programmes focusing on improving maize production and stability on acid soils in Latin America, Africa and other developing regions.
Kenya deploys powerful maize genes
One of those researchers crucial to achieving impact in GCP’s work in maize was Samuel (Sam) Gudu of Moi University, Kenya. From 2010 he was the Principal Investigator for GCP’s project on using marker-assisted backcrossing (MABC) to improve aluminium tolerance and phosphorous efficiency in maize in Kenya. This project combined molecular and conventional breeding approaches to speed up the development of maize varieties adapted to the acid soils of Africa, and was closely connected to the other GCP comparative genomics projects in maize and sorghum.
MABC is a type of marker-assisted selection (see box), which Sam’s team – including Dickson Ligeyo of KALRO – used to combine new molecular materials developed through GCP with Kenyan varieties. They have thus been able to significantly advance the breeding of maize varieties suitable for soils in Kenya and other African countries.
Maize and Comparative Genomics were two of seven Research Initiatives (RIs) where GCP concentrated on advancing researchers’ and breeders’ skills and resources in developing countries. Through this work, scientists have been able to characterise maize germplasm using improved trait observation and characterisation methods (phenotyping), implement molecular-breeding programmes, enhance strategic data management and build local human and infrastructure capacity.
The ultimate goal of the international research collaboration on comparative genomics in maize was to improve maize yields grown on acidic soils under drought conditions in Kenya and other African countries, as well as in Latin America. Seven institutes partnered up to for the comparative genomics research: Moi University, KALRO, EMBRAPA, Cornell University, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), JIRCAS and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).
“Before funding by GCP, we were mainly working on maize to develop breeding products resistant to disease and with increased yield,” says Sam. “At that time we had not known that soil acidity was a major problem in the parts of Kenya where we grow maize and sorghum. GCP knew that soil acidity could limit yields, so in the work with GCP we managed to characterise most of our acid soils. We now know that it was one of the major problems for limiting the yield of maize and sorghum.
“The relationship to EMBRAPA and Cornell University is one of the most important links we have. We developed material much faster through our collaboration with our colleagues in the advanced labs. I can see that post-GCP we will still want to communicate and interact with our colleagues in Brazil and the USA to enable us to continue to identify molecular materials that we discover,” he says. Sam and other maize researchers across Kenya, including Dickson, have since developed inbred, hybrid and synthetic varieties with improved aluminium tolerance for acid soils, which are now available for African farmers.
A Kenyan maize farmer.
“We crossed them [the new genes identified to have aluminium tolerance] with our local material to produce the materials we required for our conditions,” says Sam.
“The potential for aluminium-tolerant and phosphorous-efficient material across Africa is great. I know that in Ethiopia, aluminium toxicity from acid soil is a problem. It is also a major problem in Tanzania. It is a major problem in South Africa and a major problem in Kenya. So our breeding work, which is starting now to produce genetic materials that can be used directly, or could be developed even further in these other countries, is laying the foundation for maize improvement in acid soils.”
Sam is very proud of the work: “Several times I have felt accomplishment, because we identified material for Kenya for the first time. No one else was working on phosphorous efficiency or aluminium tolerance, and we have come up with materials that have been tested and have become varieties. It made me feel that we’re contributing to food security in Kenya.”
Maize grain for sale.
Maize for meat: GCP’s advances in maize genetics help feed Asia’s new appetites
Reaping from the substantial advances in maize genetics and breeding, researchers in Asia were also able to enhance Asian maize genetic resources.
A pig roots among maize ears on a small farm in Nepal.
Bindiganavile Vivek, a senior maize breeder for CIMMYT based in India, has been working with GCP since 2008 on improving drought tolerance in maize, especially for Asia, for two reasons: unrelenting droughts and a staggering growth the importance of maize as a feedstock. This work was funded by GCP as part of its Maize Research Initiative.
“People’s diets across Asia changed after government policies changed in the 1990s. We had a more free market economy, and along with that came more money that people could spend. That prompted a shift towards a non vegetarian diet,” Vivek recounts.
“Maize, being the number one feed crop of the world, started to come into demand. From the year 2000 up to now, the growing area of maize across Asia has been increasing by about two percent every year. That’s a phenomenal increase. It’s been replacing other crops – sorghum and rice. There’s more and more demand.
“Seventy percent of the maize that is produced in Asia is used as feed. And 70 percent of that feed is poultry feed.”
In Vietnam, for example, the government is actively promoting the expansion of maize acreage, again displacing rice. Other Asian nations involved in the push for maize include China, Indonesia and The Philippines.
A farmer in Indonesia transports his maize harvest by motorcycle.
The problem with this growth is that 80 percent of the 19 million hectares of maize in South and Southeast Asia relies on rain as its only source of water, so is prone to drought: “Wherever you are, you cannot escape drought,” says Vivek. And resource-poor farmers have limited access to improved maize products or hybrids appropriate for their situation.
Vivek’s research for GCP focused on the development – using marker-assisted breeding methods, specifically marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS) – of new drought-tolerant maize adapted to many countries in Asia. His goal was to transfer the highest expression of drought tolerance in maize into elite well-adapted Asian lines targeted at drought-prone or water-constrained environments.
Asia’s existing maize varieties had no history of breeding for drought tolerance, only for disease resistance. To make a plant drought tolerant, many genes have to be incorporated into a new variety. So Vivek asked: “How do you address the increasing demand for maize that meets the drought-tolerance issue?”
The recent work on advancing maize genetics for acid soils in the African and Brazilian GCP projects meant it was a golden opportunity for Vivek to reap some of the new genetic resources.
“This was a good opportunity to use African germplasm, bring it into India and cross it to some Asia-adapted material,” he says.
Stored maize ears hanging in long bunches outside a house in China.
A key issue Vivek faced, however, was that most African maize varieties are white, and most Asian maize varieties are yellow. “You cannot directly deploy what you breed in Africa into Asia,” Vivek says. “Plus, there’s so much difference in the environments [between Africa and Asia] and maize is very responsive to its environment.”
The advances in marker-assisted breeding since the inception of GCP contributed significantly towards the success of Vivek’s team.
“In collaboration with GCP, IITA, Cornell University and Monsanto, CIMMYT has initiated the largest public sector MARS breeding approach in the world,” says Vivek.
The outcome is good: “We now have some early-generation, yellow, drought-tolerant inbred germplasm and lines suitable for Asia.
“GCP gave us a good start. We now need to expand and build on this,” says Vivek.
GCP’s supported work laid the foundation for other CIMMYT projects, such as the Affordable, Accessible, Asian Drought-Tolerant Maize project funded by the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture. This project is developing yet more germplasm with drought tolerance.
A better picture: GCP brightens maize research
Dickson Ligeyo’s worries of a stormy future for Kenya’s maize production have lifted over the 10 years of GCP. At the end of 2014, Kenya had two new varieties that were in the final stage of testing in the national performance trials before being released to farmers.
“There is a brighter picture for Kenya’s maize production since we have acquired acid-tolerant germplasm from Brazil, which we are using in our breeding programmes,” Dickson says.
In West Africa, researchers are also revelling in the opportunity they have been given to help enhance local yields in the face of a changing climate. “My institute benefited from GCP not only in terms of human resource development, but also in provision of some basic equipment for field phenotyping and some laboratory equipment,” says Allen Oppong in Ghana.
“Through the support of GCP, I was able to characterise maize landraces found in Ghana using the bulk fingerprinting technique. This work has been published and I think it’s useful information for maize breeding in Ghana – and possibly other parts of the world.”
The main challenge now for breeders, according to Allen, is getting the new varieties out to farmers: “Most people don’t like change. The new varieties are higher yielding, disease resistant, nutritious – all good qualities. But the challenge is demonstrating to farmers that these materials are better than what they have.”
This Kenyan farmer is very happy with his healthy maize crop, grown using an improved variety during a period of drought.
Certainly GCP has strengthened the capacity of researchers across Africa, Asia and Latin America, training researchers in maize breeding, data management, statistics, trial evaluations and phenotyping. The training has been geared so that scientists in developed countries can use genetic diversity and advanced plant science to improve crops for greater food security in the developing world.
Elliot Tembo, a maize breeder with the private sector in sub-Saharan Africa says: “As a breeder and a student, I have been exposed to new breeding tools through GCP. Before my involvement, I was literally blind in the use of molecular tools. Now, I am no longer relying only on pedigree data – which is not always reliable – to classify germplasm.”
Allen agrees: “GCP has had tremendous impact on my life as a researcher. The capacity-building programme supported my training in marker-assisted selection training at CIMMYT in Mexico. This training exposed me to modern techniques in plant breeding and genomics. Similarly, it built my confidence and work efficiency.”
There is no doubt that GCP research has brightened the picture for maize research and development where it is most needed: with researchers in developing countries where poor farmers and communities rely on maize as their staple food and main crop.
A farmer from Dodoma, Tanzania, an area where climate change is causing increasing heat and drought. Groundnut is an important crop for local famers, forming the basis of their livelihood together with maize and livestock.
If you don’t live with poor people, then your science is of no use to poor people. This is the very clear sentiment of Omari Mponda, one of Tanzania’s top groundnut researchers.
“Sometimes people do rocket science. But that’s not going to help the poor,” says Omari. “Scientists in labs are very good at molecular markers, but markers by themselves will not address the productivity on the ground. You cannot remove poverty through that alone.”
Researchers like Omari, who are working on the ground in developing countries, are a crucial part of the global quest to develop solutions for future food security and improved livelihoods in these countries.
A farmer in dryland Tanzania shows off his groundnut crop.
“One thing that really energises me,” enthuses GCP Consultant Hannibal Muhtar, “is seeing people understand why they need to do the work and being given the chance to do the how.”
Hannibal, under his GCP remit, was asked to visit the research sites of GCP-funded projects at research centres and stations across Africa, to identify those where effective research might be hindered by significant gaps in three fundamental areas: infrastructure, equipment and support services. He selected 19 target research sites – in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Tanzania.
Hannibal Muhtar (left) and Omari Mponda at ARI–Naliendele.
Two of the locations chosen for some practical empowerment were in Tanzania, namely the ARI research sites at Naliendele and Mtwara, where simple infrastructure improvements like irrigation tubing and portable weather stations have made a surprising difference to the capacity of local researchers.
In developing countries like Tanzania, the obstacles to achieving research objectives are often quite mundane in nature: a faulty weather station, the lack of irrigation systems, or fields ravaged by weeds and in dire need of rehabilitation. Yet such factors compromise brilliant research.
Even a simple lack of fencing commonly results not only in equipment being stolen, but also in precious experimental crops being stomped on by roaming cattle and wild animals such as boars, monkeys, hippopotamuses and hyenas; this also poses a serious threat to the safety of field staff.
“The real challenge lies not in the science, but rather in the real nuts and bolts of getting the work done in local field conditions,” Hannibal explains.
He says: “If GCP had not invested in research support infrastructure and services, then their investment in research would have been in vain. Tools and services must be in place as and when needed, and in good working order. Tractors must be able to plough when they should plough.”
“We are bridging the big science to the poor people, to see the real issues we should be addressing. You can have a very good resistant variety, but maybe that variety is not liked by farmers,” Omari says.
He recalls a case where one farmer who helped with variety selection for international research had identified a groundnut variety that was resistant to disease, but the shells were too difficult to crack.
“So that variety won’t help the poor, because he [the farmer] is not able to open the shell. So the breeder had to rethink, what trait could loosen, or make it easier to shell?” recounts Omari.
Shelled groundnuts on sale in Ghana.
The mission of the 10-year GCP was to use genetic diversity and advanced plant science to improve crops in developing countries. More than 200 partners were involved in the programme, including members of the international CGIAR group plus academia and regional and national research programmes.
National institutes like Tanzania’s ARI–Naliendele, established in 1970, are essential linchpins between advanced research centres in developed countries and poor farmers around the world facing the day-to-day realities of climate change and plant pests and diseases.
“If each organisation works in isolation, they will spend a lot of money developing new varieties but nothing will change on the ground. So in actually working together through programmes like the GCP, we can see some change happening,” says Omari.
Through the GCP project, Tanzania’s groundnut researchers received 300 reference-set lines from ICRISAT, which were then phenotyped over three years (2008–2010) for both drought tolerance and disease resistance in order to select the most useful lines under local conditions. To help with this process, Tanzanian scientists and technicians travelled to ICRISAT headquarters in India, where they were trained in phenotyping: that is, how to identify and measure observable characteristics – in this case, traits relating to the plants’ abilities to cope with drought and disease.
After the researchers identified the best varieties, these were provided to participating farmers so they could trial them in their fields for selection in 2011–2012. Five new varieties have since been released to Tanzanian farmers based on this collaboration between ARI and ICRISAT.
A young groundnut plant.
Things are speeding up in Tanzania
For ARI–Naliendele, the laboratory and field infrastructure provided by GCP funding has helped accelerate the work of local researchers and breeders. It has been transformative for Tanzanian scientists, according to Omari.
“For example, irrigation is very costly, but with the GCP support for an irrigation system, we can fast track our work – we can come up with new varieties in a much shorter period. That is something that will change our lives,” says Omari.
“Groundnut has a very low multiplication ratio, so if you plant one kilogram, you will get only 10 kilograms next year,” he explains. “Ten kilograms in 12 months is not enough. With irrigation, it means that we can have at least two or three crops within a season. Some of the varieties we are developing can be fast tracked to the end users. The speed of getting varieties from the research to the farmers has increased by maybe three times.”
Washing harvested groundnuts, Zimbabwe.
GCP also funded computers, measuring scales, laboratory equipment and a portable weather station, which all help to assure good, reliable information on phenotyping.
Scientists too have become quicker and better at their work from having more advanced skills, according to Omari: “We now have more competent groundnut breeders in Tanzania.
“Initially, we depended on germplasm being brought over by ICRISAT and somebody selecting varieties for us. But they have been training us to do our own crosses, so we can now decide what grows in our breeding programme,” he says.
“For us, it is a big achievement to be able to do national crosses. We are advancing toward being a functional breeding programme in Tanzania.
“These gains made are not only sustainable, but also give us independence and autonomy to operate. We developing-country scientists are used to conventional breeding, but we now see the value and the need for adjusting ourselves to understand the use of molecular markers in groundnut breeding.”
Tanzania’s new zest for advanced plant breeding
A farmer at work in her cassava field in northern Tanzania.
According to cassava breeder Geoffrey Mkamilo, a Principal Agricultural Research Officer at ARI: “There are some things that you just cannot do by conventional breeding.”
Usually researchers looking to breed better drought-tolerant and disease- and pest-resistant crops would use conventional breeding methods. This means researchers would be trying to pick out resilient plants by phenotyping alone, looking at how they are growing in the field under different conditions, which can take considerable time to deliver results – especially for crops that are slow to mature, like cassava.
Molecular breeding, on the other hand, involves using molecular markers to make the breeding process faster and more effective. These markers are genetic sequences known to be linked to useful genes that confer plant traits such as drought tolerance or disease resistance. Breeders can easily test small amounts of plant material for these markers, so they act like genetic ‘tags’, flagging up whether or not particular genes are present.
This knowledge helps breeders to efficiently select the best parent plants to use in their crosses, and accurately identify which of the progeny have inherited the gene or genes in question without having to grow them all to maturity. Phenotyping is still needed in discovering markers, linking genetic information with physical traits, and in testing the performance of materials in the field, but overall the time taken produce a new variety can be reduced by years.
“Before I started working with GCP, molecular breeding for me was very, very difficult… I wasn’t trained to become a molecular breeder. Now, with GCP, I can speak the same language,” Geoffrey says.
A farmer carefully packs harvested cassava tubers for transportation to the market in Bungu, Tanzania.
The research continues to produce ever better cassava varieties, and in this endeavour Geoffrey cannot overemphasise the power of integrating conventional breeding practices with molecular breeding.
“I have received so many phone calls from farmers; they even call in the night. They say, ‘Geoffrey, we have heard that you have very good materials. Where do we get these materials?’ So many, many farmers are calling,” says Geoffrey. “Many, many organisations – even NGOs, they also call. They want these materials. And even the private sector calls. GCP has contributed tremendously to this.”
Sorghum is already a drought-hardy crop, and is a critical food source across Africa’s harsh, semi-arid regions where water-intensive crops simply cannot survive. Now, as rainfall patterns become increasingly erratic and variable worldwide, scientists warn of the need to improve sorghum’s broad adaptability to drought.
Crop researchers across the world are now on the verge of doing just that. Through support from the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP), advanced breeding methods are enhancing the capacity of African sorghum breeders to deliver more robust varieties that will help struggling farmers and feed millions of poor people across sub-Saharan Africa.
A farmer in her sorghum field in Tanzania.
Sorghum at home in Africa
From Sudanese savannah to the Sahara’s desert fringes, sorghum thrives in a diverse range of environments. First domesticated in East Africa some 6000 years ago, it is well adapted to hot, dry climates and low soil fertility, although still depends on receiving some rainfall to grow and is very sensitive to flooding.
In developed countries such as Australia, sorghum is grown almost exclusively to make feed for cattle, pigs and poultry, but in many African countries millions of poor rural people directly depend on the crop in their day-to-day lives.
A Malian woman and her child eating sorghum.
In countries like Mali sorghum is an important staple crop. It is eaten in many forms such as couscous or tô (a kind of thick porridge), it is used for making local beer, and its straw is a vital source of feed for livestock.
While the demand for, and total production of, sorghum has doubled in West Africa in the last 20 years, yields have generally remained low due to a number of causes, from drought and problematic soils, to pests and diseases.
In a continued quest to integrate ways to increase productivity, GCP launched its Sorghum Research Initiative (RI) in 2010. This aimed to investigate and apply the approaches by which genetics and molecular breeding could be used to improve sorghum yields through better adaptability, particularly in the drylands of West Africa where cropping areas are large and rainfall is becoming increasingly rare.
Since 2008, with the help of CIRAD and Syngenta, Niaba and his team at IER have been learning how to use molecular markers to develop improved sorghum germplasm through identifying parental lines that are more tolerant and better adapted to the arid and volatile environments of Mali.
The two breeding methods used in the collaboration are known as marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS) and backcross nested association mapping (BCNAM).
“MARS identifies regions of the genome that control important traits,” explains Jean-François. “It uses molecular markers to explore more combinations in the plant populations, and thus increases breeding efficiency.”
Syngenta, he explains, became involved through its long experience in implementing MARS in maize.
“Syngenta advised the team on how to conduct MARS and ways we could avoid critical pitfalls,” he says. “They gave us access to using the software they have developed for the analysis of data, and this enabled us to start the programme immediately.”
With the help of the IER team, two bi-parental populations from elite local varieties were developed, targeting two different environments found in sorghum cropping areas in Mali. “We were then able to use molecular markers through MARS to identify and monitor key regions of the genome in consecutive breeding generations,” says Jean-François.
“When we have identified the genome regions on which to focus, we cross the progenies and monitor the resulting new progenies,” he says. “The improved varieties subsequently go to plant breeders in Mali’s national research program, which will later release varieties to farmers.”
Jean-François is pleased with the success of the MARS project so far. “The development of MARS addressed a large range of breeding targets for sorghum in Mali, including adaptation to the environment and grain productivity, as well as grain quality, plant morphology and response to diseases,” he says. “It proved to be efficient in elucidating the complex relationships between the large number of traits that the breeder has to deal with, and translating this into target genetic ideotypes that can be constructed using molecular markers.”
Jean-François says several MARS breeding lines have already shown superior and stable performance in farm testing as compared to current elite lines, and these will be available to breeders in Mali in 2015 to develop new varieties.
Eva Weltzein-Rattunde examines sorghum plants with farmers in Mali.
Like MARS, the BCNAM approach shows promise for being able to quickly gain improvements in sorghum yield and adaptability to drought, explains Niaba, who is Principal Investigator of the BCNAM project. BCNAM may be particularly effective, he says, in developing varieties that have the grain quality preferences of Malian farmers, as well as the drought tolerance that has until now been unavailable.
“BCNAM involves using an elite recurrent parent that is already adapted to local drought conditions, then crossing it with several different specific or donor parents to build up larger breeding populations,” he explains. “The benefit of this approach is it can lead to detecting elite varieties much faster.”
Eva and her team at ICRISAT have also been collaborating with researchers at IER and CIRAD on the BCNAM project. The approach, she says, has the potential to halve the time it takes to develop local sorghum varieties with improved yield and adaptability to poor soil fertility conditions.
“We don’t have these types of molecular-breeding resources available in Mali, so it’s really exciting to be a part of this project,” she says. “Overall, we feel the experience is enhancing our capacity here, and that we are closer to delivering more robust sorghum varieties which will help farmers and feed the ever-growing population in West Africa.”
Indeed, during field testing in Mali, BCNAM lines derived from the elite parent variety Grinkan have produced more than twice the yields of Grinkan itself. As they are rolled out in the form of new varieties, the team anticipates that they will have a huge positive impact on farmers’ livelihoods.
Malian sorghum farmers.
Mali and Queensland – similar problem, different soil
In Mali and the wider Sahel region within West Africa, cropping conditions are ideal for sorghum. The climate is harsh, with daily temperatures on the dry, sun-scorched lower plains rarely falling below 30°C. With no major river system, the threat of drought is ever-present, and communities are entirely dependent on the 500 millimetres of rain that falls during the July and August wet season.
“All the planting and harvesting is done during the rainy season,” says Niaba. “We have lakes that are fed by the rain, but when these lakes start to dry up farmers rely mostly on the moisture remaining in the soil.”
Over 17 thousand kilometres to the east of Mali, in north-eastern Australia’s dryland cropping region, situated mainly in the state of Queensland, sorghum is the main summer crop, and is considered a good rotational crop as it performs well under heat and moisture stress. The environment here is similar to Mali’s, with extreme drought a big problem.
Average yields for sorghum in Queensland are double those in Mali—around two tonnes per hectare—yet growers still consider them low, directly limited by the crop’s predominantly water-stressed production environment in Australia.
One of the differentiating factors is soil. “Queensland has a much deeper and more fertile soil compared to Mali, where the soil is shallow, with no mulch or organic matter,” says Niaba. “Also, there is no management at the farm level in Mali, so when rain comes, if the soil cannot take it, we lose it.”
Sorghum in Queensland, Australia.
Making sorghum stay green, longer
Another key reason for the difference in yields between Queensland and Mali is that growers in Queensland are sowing a sorghum variety of with a genetic trait that makes it more tolerant to drought.
This trait is called ‘stay-green’, and over the last two decades it has proven valuable in increasing sorghum yields, using less water, in north-eastern Australia and the southern United States.
Stay-green allows sorghum plants to stay alive and maintain green leaves for longer during post-flowering drought—that is, drought that occurs after the plant has flowered. This means the plants can keep growing and produce more grain in drier conditions.
“Plant breeders have known about stay-green for some 30 years,” he says. “They’d walk their fields and see that the leaves of certain plants would remain green while others didn’t. They knew it was correlated with high yield under drought conditions, but didn’t know why.”
Stay-green’s potential in Mali
With their almost 20 years working on understanding how stay-green works, Andrew and his colleagues at UQ were invited by GCP in 2012 to take part in the IER/CIRAD collaborative project, to evaluate the potential for introducing stay-green into Mali’s local sorghum varieties and enriching Malian pre-breeding material for the trait.
A pivotal stage in this new alliance was a 12-month visit to Australia by Niaba and his IER colleague Sidi Coulibaly, to work with Andrew and his team to understand how stay-green drought resistance works in tall Malian sorghum varieties.
“African sorghum is very tall and sensitive to variation in day length,” explains Andrew. “We have been looking to investigate if the stay-green mechanism operates in tall African sorghums (around four metres tall) in the same way that it does in short Australian sorghum (one metre tall).”
Having just completed a series of experiments at the end of 2014, the UQ team consider their data as preliminary at this stage. “But it looks like we can get a correlation between stay-green and the size and yield of these Malian lines,” says Andrew. “We think it’s got great potential.”
A large part of GCP’s focus is building just such capacity among developing country partners to carry out crop research and breeding independently in future, so they can continue developing new varieties with drought adaptation relevant to their own environmental conditions.
A key objective of the IER team’s Australian visit was to receive training in the methods for improving yields and drought resistance in sorghum breeding lines from both Australia and Mali.
“We learnt about association mapping, population genetics and diversity, molecular breeding, crop modelling using climate forecasts, and sorghum physiology, plus a lot more,” says Niaba. This training complemented previous training Niaba and IER researchers had from CIRAD and ICRISAT through the MARS and BCNAM projects.
“We [CIRAD] have a long collaboration in sorghum research in Mali and training young scientists has always been part of our mission,” says Jean-François. “We’ve hosted several IER students here in France and we are always interacting with our colleagues in Mali either over the phone or travelling to Mali to give technical workshops in molecular breeding.”
Harvested sorghum in Sudan.
Working together to implement MARS in the sorghum breeding program in Mali represented many operational challenges, Jean-François explains. “The approach requires a very tight integration of different and complementary skills, including a strong conventional breeding capacity, accurate breeders’ knowledge, efficient genotyping technologies, and skills for efficient genetic analyses,” he says.
Because of this requirement, he adds, there are very few reported experiences of the successful implementation of MARS. It is also the reason why these kinds of projects would normally not be undertaken in a developing country like Mali, but for the support of GCP and the dedicated mentorship of Jean-François.
“GCP provided the perfect environment to develop the MARS approach,” says Jean-François. “It brought together people with complementary skills, developed the Integrated Breeding Platform (IPB), and provided tools and services to support the programme.”
In addition to developing capacity, Jean-François says one of the great successes of both the MARS and the BCNAM projects was how they brought together Mali’s sorghum research groups working at IER and ICRISAT in a common effort to develop new genetic resources for sorghum breeding.
“This work has strengthened the IER and ICRISAT partnerships around a common resource. The large multiparent populations that have been developed are analysed collectively to decipher the genetic control of important traits for sorghum breeding in Mali,” says Jean-François. “This community development is another major achievement of the Sorghum Research Initiative.” The major challenge, he adds, will be whether this community can be kept together beyond GCP.
Considering the numerous ‘non-GCP’ activities that have already been initiated in Africa as a result of the partnerships forged through GCP research, Jean-François sees a clear indication that these connections will endure well beyond GCP’s time frame.
GCP’s sunset is Mali’s sunrise
Sorghum at sunset in Mozambique.
Among the new activities Jean-François lists are both regional and national projects aimed at building on what has already been achieved through GCP and linking national partners together. These include the West African Agricultural Productivity Program (WAAPP), the West Africa Platform being launched by CIRAD as a continuation of the MARS innovation, and another MARS project in Senegal and Niger through the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sorghum and Millet at Kansas State University.
“These are all activities which will help maintain the networks we’ve built,” Jean-François says. “I think it is very important that these networks of people with common objectives stick together.”
For Niaba, GCP provided the initial boost needed for these networks to emerge and thrive. “We had some contacts before, but we didn’t have the funds to really get into a collaboration. This has been made possible by GCP. Now we’re motivated and are making connections with other people on how we can continue working with the material we have developed.”
“I can’t talk enough of the positive stories from GCP,” he adds. “GCP initiated something, and the benefits for me and my country I cannot measure. Right now, GCP has reached its sunset; but for me it is a sunrise, because what we have been left with is so important.”
Across Africa, governments and scientists alike are heralding groundnuts’ potential to lead resource-poor farmers out of poverty.
Around 5,000 years ago in the north of Argentina, two species of wild groundnuts got together to produce a natural hybrid. The result of this pairing is the groundnut grown today across the globe, particularly in Africa and Asia. Now, scientists are discovering the treasures hidden in the genes of these ancient ancestors.
Nearly half of the world’s groundnut growing area lies within the African continent, yet Africa’s production of the legume has, until recently, accounted for only 25 percent of global yield. Drought, pests, diseases and contamination are all culprits in reducing yields and quality. But through the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP), scientists have been developing improved varieties using genes from the plant’s ancient ancestors. These new varieties are destined to make great strides towards alleviating poverty in some of the world’s most resource-poor countries.
A Ugandan farmer at work weeding her groundnut field.
A grounding in the history of Africa’s groundnuts
From simple bar snack in the west to staple food in developing countries, groundnuts – also commonly known as peanuts – have a place in the lives of many peoples across the world. First domesticated in the lush valleys of Paraguay, groundnuts have been successfully bred and cultivated for millennia. Today they form a billion-dollar industry in China, India and the USA, while also sustaining the livelihoods of millions of farming families across Africa and Asia.
Groundnuts have good potential for sustaining a strong African export industry in future, while providing a great source of nutrition for Africa’s regional farming families.
“We believe that by using what we have learnt through GCP, we will be able to boost the production and exportation of groundnuts from Senegal to European countries, and even to Asian countries,” says Issa. “So it’s very, very important for us.”
Harvested groundnuts in Senegal.
How Africa lost its groundnut export market
Groundnuts in distress under drought conditions.
In Africa, groundnuts have mostly been grown by impoverished smallholder farmers, in infertile soils and dryland areas where rainfall is both low and erratic. Drought and disease cause about USD 500 million worth of losses to groundnut production in Africa every year.
“Because groundnut is self-pollinating, most of the time poor farmers can recycle the seed and keep growing it over and over,” Patrick says. “But for such a crop you need to refresh the seed frequently, and after a certain period you should cull it. So the absence of, or limited access to, improved seed for farmers is one of the big challenges we have. Because of this, productivity is generally less than 50 percent of what would be expected.”
Rosette virus damage to groundnut above and below ground.
Diseases such as the devastating groundnut rosette virus – which is only found in Africa and has been known to completely wipe out crops in some areas – as well as pests and preharvest seed contamination have all limited crop yields and quality and have subsequently shut out Africa’s groundnuts from export markets.
The biggest blow for Africa came in the 1980s from a carcinogenic fungal toxin known as aflatoxin, explains Patrick.
Aflatoxin-contaminated groundnut kernels from Mozambique.
Aflatoxin is produced by mould species of the genus Aspergillus, which can naturally occur in the soil in which groundnuts are grown. When the fungus infects the legume it produces a toxin which, if consumed in high enough quantities, can be fatal or cause cancer. Groundnut crops the world over are menaced by aflatoxin, but Africa lost its export market because of high contamination levels.
“That’s why a substantial focus of the GCP research programme has been to develop varieties of groundnuts with resistance to the fungus,” says Patrick.
After a decade of GCP support, a suite of new groundnut varieties representing a broad diversity of characteristics is expected to be rolled out in the next two or three years. This suite will provide a solid genetic base of resistance from which today’s best commercial varieties can be improved, so the levels of aflatoxin contamination in the field can ultimately be reduced.
Ancestral genes could hold the key to drought tolerance and disease resistance
The sequencing work has given breeders access to 96 percent of all groundnut genes and provided the molecular map needed to breed drought-tolerant and disease-resistant higher-yielding varieties, faster.
“Genetically, the groundnut has always been a really tough nut to crack,” says GCP collaborator David Bertioli, from the University of Brasilia in Brazil. “It has a complex genetic structure, narrow genetic diversity and a reputation for being slow and difficult to breed. Until its genome was sequenced, the groundnut was bred relatively blindly compared to other crops, so it has remained among the less studied crops,” he says.
With the successful genome sequencing, however, researchers can now understand groundnut breeding in ways they could only dream of before.
“Working with a wild species allows you to bring in new versions of genes that are valuable for the crop, like disease resistance, and also other unexpected things, like improved yield under drought,” David says. “Even things like seed size can be altered this way, which you don’t really expect.”
The sequencing of the groundnut genome was funded by The Peanut Foundation, Mars Inc. and three Chinese academies (the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, the Henan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and the Shandong Academy of Agricultural Sciences), but David credits GCP work for paving the way. “GCP research built up the populations and genetic maps that laid the groundwork for the material that then went on to be sequenced.”
Chair of GCP’s Consortium Committee, David Hoisington – formerly ICRISAT’s Director of Research and now Senior Research Scientist and Program Director at the University of Georgia – says the sequencing could be a huge step forward for boosting agriculture in developing countries.
“Researchers and plant breeders now have much better tools available to breed more productive and more resilient groundnut varieties, with improved yields and better nutrition,” he says.
These resilient varieties should be available to farmers across Africa within a few years.
Genetics alone will not lift productivity – farmers’ local knowledge is vital
Improvements in the yield, quality and share of the global market of groundnuts produced by developing countries are already being seen as a result of GCP support, says Vincent Vadez. “But for this trend to continue, the crop’s ability to tolerate drought and resist diseases must be improved without increasing the use of costly chemicals that most resource-poor farmers simply cannot afford,” he says.
While genetic improvements are fundamental to developing the disease resistance and drought tolerance so desperately needed by African farmers, there are other important factors that can influence the overall outcome of a breeding programme, he explains. Understanding the plant itself, the soil and the climate of a region are all vital in creating the kinds of varieties farmers need and can grow in their fields.
Kenyan groundnut farmer Patrick Odima with some of his crop.
“I have grown increasingly convinced that overlooking these aspects in our genetic improvements would be to our peril,” Vincent warns. “There are big gains to be made from looking at very simple sorts of agronomic management changes, like sowing density – the number of seeds you plant per square metre. Groundnuts are often cultivated at seeding rates that are unlikely to achieve the best possible yields, especially when they’re grown in infertile soils.”
For Omari Mponda, now Director of Tanzania’s Agricultural Research Institute at Naliendele (ARI–Naliendele), previously Zonal Research Coordinator and plant breeder, and country groundnut research leader for GCP’s Tropical Legumes I project (TLI; see box below), combining good genetics with sound agronomic management is a matter of success or failure for any crop-breeding programme, especially in poverty-stricken countries.
“Molecular markers by themselves will not address the productivity on the ground,” he says, agreeing with Vincent. “A new variety of groundnut may have very good resistance, but its pods may be too hard, making shelling very difficult. This does not help the poor people, because they can’t open the shells with their bare hands.”
And helping the poor of Africa is the real issue, Omari says. “We must remind ourselves of that.”
This means listening to the farmers: “It means finding out what they think and experience, and using that local knowledge. Only then should the genetics come in. We need to focus on the connections between local knowledge and scientific knowledge. This is vital.”
Participants at a farmer field day in Mali interact with ICRISAT staff and examine different groundnut varieties and books on aflatoxin control and management options.
Local knowledge and high-end genetics working together in Tanzania
Like Malawi, Tanzania has also experienced the full spectrum of constraints to groundnut production – from drought, aflatoxin contamination, poor soil and limited access to new seed, to a lack of government extension officers visiting farmers to ensure they have the knowledge and skills needed to improve their farming practices and productivity.
Although more than one million hectares of Tanzania is groundnut cropping land, the resources supplied by the government have until now been minimal, says Omari, compared to those received for traditional cash crops such as cashews and coffee.
A farmer and her children near Dodoma, Tanzania, an area where climate change is causing increasing heat and drought. Groundnut is an important crop for local famers, forming the basis of their livelihood together with maize and livestock.
“But the groundnut is now viewed differently by the government in my country as a result of GCP’s catalytic efforts,” Omari says. “More resources are being put into groundnut research.”
“They saw it was impossible for us to irrigate our crops with only one borehole, for instance, so they injected new funds into our irrigation system. We now have two boreholes and a whole new system, which has helped expand the seed production flow. Without GCP, this probably wouldn’t have happened.”
Irrigation, for Omari, ultimately means being able to get varieties to the farmers much faster: “maybe three times as fast,” he says. “This means we’ll be able to speed up the multiplication of seeds – in the past we were relying on rainfed seed, which took longer to bulk and get to farmers.”
With such practical outcomes from GCP’s research and funding efforts and the new genetic resources becoming available, breeders like Omari see a bright future for groundnut research in Tanzania.
Groundnut farmer near Dodoma, Tanzania.
The gains being made at Naliendele are not only sustainable, Omari explains, but have given the researchers independence and autonomy. “Before we were only learning – now we have become experts in what we do.”
Prior to GCP, Omari and his colleagues were used to conventional breeding and lacked access to cutting-edge science.
“We used to depend on germplasm supplied to us by ICRISAT, but now we see the value in learning to use molecular markers in groundnut breeding to grow our own crosses, and we are rapidly advancing to a functional breeding programme in Tanzania.”
Omari says he and his team now look forward to the next phase of their research, when they expect to make impact by practically applying their knowledge to groundnut production in Tanzania.
Similar breeding success in Senegal
Harvesting groundnuts in Senegal.
Issa Faye became involved in GCP in 2008 when the programme partly funded his PhD in fresh seed dormancy in groundnuts. “I was an example of a young scientist who was trained and helped by GCP in groundnut research,” he says.
“I remember when I was just starting my thesis, my supervisor would say, ‘You are very lucky because you will not be limited to using conventional breeding. You are starting at a time when GCP funding is allowing us to use marker-assisted selection [MAS] in our breeding programme’.”
The importance of MAS in groundnut breeding, Issa says, cannot be overstated.
“It is very difficult to distinguish varieties of cultivated groundnut because most of them are morphologically very similar. But if you use molecular markers you can easily distinguish them and know the diversity of the matter you are using, which makes your programme more efficient. It makes it easier to develop varieties, compared to the conventional breeding programme we were using before we started working with GCP.”
By using markers that are known to be linked to useful genes for traits such as drought tolerance, disease resistance, or resistance to aflatoxin-producing fungi, breeders can test plant materials to see whether or not they are present. This helps them to select the best parent plants to use in their crosses, and accurately identify which of the progeny have inherited the gene or genes in question without having to grow them all to maturity, saving time and money.
These women in Salima District, Malawi, boil groundnuts at home and carry their tubs to the Siyasiya roadside market.
Senegal, like other developing countries, does not have enough of its own resources for funding research activities, explains Issa. “We can say we are quite lucky here because we have a well-developed and well-equipped lab, which is a good platform for doing molecular MAS. But we need to keep improving it if we want to be on the top. We need more human resources and more equipment for boosting all the breeding programmes in Senegal and across other regions of West Africa.”
Recently, Issa says, the Senegalese government has demonstrated awareness of the importance of supporting these activities. “We think that we will be receiving more funds from the government because they have seen that it’s a kind of investment. If you want to develop agriculture, you need to support research. Funding from the government will be more important in the coming years,” he says.
“Now that we have resources developed through GCP, we hope that some drought-tolerant varieties will come and will be very useful for farmers in Senegal and even for other countries in West Africa that are facing drought.”
It’s all about poverty
“The achievements of GCP in groundnut research are just the beginning,” says Vincent. The legacy of the new breeding material GCP has provided, he says, is that it is destined to form the basis of new and ongoing research programmes, putting research well ahead of where it would otherwise have been.
“There wasn’t time within the scope of GCP to develop finished varieties because that takes such a long time, but these products will come,” he says.
For Vincent, diverse partnerships facilitated by GCP have been essential for this to happen. “The groundnut work led by ICRISAT and collaborators in the target countries – Malawi, Senegal, and Tanzania – has been continuously moving forward.”
Groundnut harvesting at Chitedze Agriculture Research Station, Malawi.
Issa agrees: “It was fantastic to be involved in this programme. We know each other now and this will ease our collaborations. We hope to keep working with all the community, and that will obviously have a positive impact on our work.”
For Omari, a lack of such community and collaboration can only mean failure when it comes to addressing poverty.
“If we all worked in isolation, a lot of money would be spent developing new varieties but nothing would change on the ground,” he says. “Our work in Tanzania is all about the problem of poverty, and as scientists we want to make sure the new varieties are highly productive for the farmers around our area. This means we need to work closely with members of the agricultural industry, as a team.”
Omari says he and his colleagues see themselves as facilitators between the farmers of Tanzania and the ‘upstream end’ of science represented by ICRISAT and GCP. “We are responsible for bringing these two ends together and making the collaboration work,” he says.
Only from there can we come up with improved technologies that will really succeed at helping to reduce poverty in Africa.”
As climate change threatens to aggravate poverty more and more in the future, the highly nutritious, drought-tolerant groundnut may well be essential to sustain a rapidly expanding global population.
By developing new, robust varieties with improved adaptation to drought, GCP researchers are well on the way to increasing the productivity and profitability of the groundnut in some of the poorest regions of Africa, shifting the identity of the humble nut to potential crop champion for future generations.
Oswin Madzonga, Scientific Officer at ICRISAT-Lilongwe, visits on-farm trials near Chitala Research Station in Salima, Malawi, where promising disesase-resistant varieties are being tested real life conditions.
Each year, millions of people in Senegal go hungry for several months, many surviving on no more than one meal a day. Locals call this time soudure – the hungry period. It typically lasts from June through to September, when previous winter and spring cereal supplies are exhausted and people wait anxiously for a bountiful autumn cereal harvest.
During this period, a bowl of fresh green cowpea pods once a day is the best that many people can hope for. Cowpeas are the first summer crop to mature, with some varieties ready to harvest in as little as 60 days.
While cowpeas provide valued food security in Africa, yields remain low. In Senegal, average cowpea yields are 450 kilograms per hectare, a mere 10–30 percent of their potential. This poor productivity is primarily because of losses due to insects and diseases, but is sometimes further compounded by chronic drought.
In 2007, the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP) brought together a team of plant breeders and geneticists from Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal and the USA to collaborate on cowpea. Their goal was to breed varieties that would be higher yielding, drought tolerant and resistant to pests and diseases, and so help secure and improve local cowpea production in sub-Saharan African countries.
A trader selling cowpea at Bodija market, Ibadan, Nigeria.
Cowpea production – almost all of it comes from Africa
A type of legume originating in West Africa, cowpeas are also known as niébé in francophone Africa and as black-eyed peas in the USA. They are well adapted to drier, warmer regions and grow well in poor soils. In Africa, they are mostly grown in the hot, drought-prone savannas and very arid sub-Saharan regions, often together with pearl millet and sorghum.
Nutritionally, cowpeas are a major source of dietary protein in many developing countries. Young leaves, unripe pods and peas are used as vegetables, and the mature grain is processed for various snacks and main meal dishes. As a cash crop, both for grain and animal fodder, cowpea is highly valued in sub-Saharan Africa.
Worldwide, an estimated 14.5 million hectares of land is planted with cowpea each year. Global production of dried cowpeas in 2010 was 5.5 million tonnes, 94 percent of which was grown in Africa.
In 2011, Senegal experienced its third drought within a decade. Low and erratic rainfall led to poor harvests in 2011 and 2012: yields of cereal crops (wheat, barley and maize) fell by 36 percent compared to 2010. Consequently, the hungry period in 2012 started three months earlier than usual, making gap-fillers like cowpea even more important. In fact, cereal production in sub-Saharan African countries has not seen substantial growth over the last two decades – total area, yield and production grew by only 4.3 percent, 1.5 percent and 5.8 percent, respectively.
Climate change is expected to further compound this situation across sub-Saharan Africa. Droughts are forecast to occur more frequently, weakening plants and making them more vulnerable to pests and diseases.
“Improved varieties of cowpeas are urgently needed to narrow the gap between actual and potential yields,” says Ndiaga. “They will not only provide security to farmers in the face of climate change, but will also help with food security and overall livelihoods.”
Farmers in Northern Nigeria transport their cowpea harvest.
Mapping the cowpea genome
For over 30 years, Phil Roberts, a professor in the Department of Nematology at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), has been breeding new varieties of cowpea. “UCR has a long history of research in cowpea breeding that goes back to the mid-seventies,” explains Phil. “One of the reasons we were commissioned by GCP in 2007 was to use our experience, particularly in using molecular breeding, to help African cowpea-breeding programmes produce higher yielding cowpeas.”
For seven years, Phil and his team at UCR coordinated the cowpea component of the Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project led by GCP (see box below). The objective of this work was to advance cowpea breeding by applying modern, molecular breeding techniques, tools and knowledge to develop lines and varieties with drought tolerance and resistance to pests and diseases in the sub-Saharan African countries Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Nigeria and Senegal.
The molecular breeding technology that UCR uses for cowpeas is based on finding genes that help cowpea plants tolerate insects and diseases, identifying markers that can indicate the presence of known genes, and using these to incorporate valuable genes into higher yielding varieties.
“Using molecular breeding techniques is a lot easier and quicker, and certainly less hit-or-miss, than conventional breeding techniques,” says Phil. “We can shorten the time needed to breed better adapted cowpea varieties preferred by farmers and markets.”
Phil explains that the first priority of the project was to map the cowpea genome.
“The map helps us locate the genes that play a role in expressing key traits such as drought tolerance, disease resistance or pest resistance,” says Phil. “Once we know where these genes are, we can use molecular marker tools to identify and help select for the traits. This is a lot quicker than growing the plant and observing if the trait is present or not.”
To use an analogy, think of the plant’s genome as a story: its words are the plant’s genes, and a molecular marker works as a text highlighter. Molecular markers are not precise enough to highlight specific words (genes), but they can highlight sentences (genomic regions) that contain these words (genes), making it easier and quicker to identify which plants have them. Traditionally, breeders have needed to grow plants to maturity under appropriately challenging conditions to see which ones are likely to have useful traits, but by using markers to flag valuable genes they are able to largely skip this step, and test large amounts of material to choose the best parents for their crosses, then check which of the progeny have inherited the gene or genes.
Diversity of cowpea seed.
Breeding new varieties faster, using modern techniques
MARS identifies regions of the genome that control important traits. In the case of cowpeas, these include drought tolerance and insect resistance. It uses molecular markers to explore more combinations in the plant populations, thus increasing breeding efficiency.
MABC is the simplest form of marker-assisted breeding, in which the goal is to incorporate a major gene from an agronomically inferior source (the donor parent) into an elite cultivar or breeding line (the recurrent parent). Major genes by themselves have a significant effect; it’s therefore easier to find a major gene associated with a desired trait, than having to find and clone several minor genes. The aim is to produce a line made up almost entirely of the recurrent parent genotype, with only the selected major gene from the donor parent.
Using the genome map and molecular markers, the UCR team identified 30 cowpea lines with drought tolerance and pest resistance from 5,000 varieties in its collection, providing the raw material for marker-assisted breeding. “Once we knew which lines had the drought-tolerance and pest-resistance genes we were looking for, we crossed them with high-yielding lines to develop 20 advanced cowpea lines, which our African partners field tested,” says Phil.
The lines underwent final field tests in 2014, and the best-yielding drought-tolerant lines will be used locally in Burkina Faso, Mozambique and Senegal to develop new higher yielding varieties that will be available to growers by 2016.
“While we are still some time off from releasing these varieties, we already feel we are two or three years ahead of where we would be if we were doing things using only conventional breeding methods,” says Ndiaga.
A parasitic Striga plant, in a cowpea experimental plot.
The genome map and molecular markers have helped cowpea breeders like Ousmane Boukar, cowpea breeder and Kano Station Representative with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), headquartered in Nigeria, to locate the genes in cowpeas that play a role in expressing desirable traits.
Ousmane, who was GCP’s cowpea Product Delivery Coordinator, says, “We have used this technology to develop advanced breeding lines that are producing higher yields in drier conditions and displaying resistance to several pests and diseases like thrips and Striga. We expect these lines to be available to plant breeders by the end of 2015.
“TLI has had a huge impact in Africa in terms of developing capacity to carry out marker-assisted breeding,” he says. “This form of breeding helps us to breed new varieties in three to five years instead of seven to ten years.”
Burkina Faso – evaluating new lines to improve the country’s economy
Cowpea is an important crop for the people of Burkina Faso. Over 10 million farmers produce on average 800,000 tonnes of cowpeas each year, making the country the third largest producer in the world, behind neighbours Nigeria and Niger.
Much of Burkina Faso’s cowpea crop is consumed domestically, but the government sees potential in increasing productivity for export to Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana in the south. This new venture would improve the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), which is the third lowest in the world.
“We’ve been working closely with UCR to evaluate advanced breeding lines that we can use in our own breeding programme. So far we have several promising lines, some of which breeders are using to create varieties for release to farmers – some as early as this year.”
Farmers in Burkina Faso discuss cowpea varieties during participatory varietal selection activities.
Outsourcing the molecular work
Issa says his team has mainly been using conventional breeding techniques and outsourcing the molecular breeding work to the UK and USA. “We send leaf samples to the UK to be genotyped by a private company [LGC Genomics], who then forward the data to UCR, who analyse it and tell us which plants contain the desired genes and would be suitable for crossing.”
The whole process takes four to six weeks, from taking the samples to making a decision on which plants to cross.
“This system works well for countries that don’t have the capacity or know-how to do the molecular work,” says Darshna Vyas, a plant genetics specialist with LGC Genomics. “Genotyping has advanced to a point where even larger labs around the world choose to outsource their genotyping work, as it is cheaper and quicker than if they were to equip their lab and do it themselves. We do hundreds of thousands of genotyping samples a day – day in, day out. It’s our business.”
Darshna says LGC Genomics have also developed plant kits, as a result of working more with GCP partners from developing countries. “We would receive plant tissue that was not properly packaged and had become mouldy on the journey. The plant kits help researchers package their tissue correctly. The genotyping data you get from undamaged tissue compared to damaged tissue is a thousand times better.”
Getting the genotyping expertise on the ground
A trader bagging cowpeas at Bodija market, Ibadan, Nigeria.
To reduce their African partners’ reliance on UCR, researchers from the university, including Phil, have been training young plant breeders and PhD students from collaborating institutes. Independent of the cowpea project, they have also been joining GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP) training events in Africa to help breeders understand the new technologies.
“All this capacity building we do really gets at the issue of leaving expertise on the ground when the project ends,” says Phil. “If these breeders don’t have the expertise to use the modern breeding technologies, then we won’t make much progress.”
GCP Capacity Building Theme Leader and TLI Project Manager Ndeye Ndack Diop has been impressed by UCR’s enthusiasm to build capacity in its partner countries. “Capacity building is a core objective for GCP and the TLI project,” says Ndeye Ndack. “While it is built into almost all GCP projects, UCR have gone over and above what was expected of them and contributed towards building capacity not only among its partner institutions, but in many other African national breeding institutes as well.”
One of Issa’s researchers at INERA, Jean-Baptiste de la Salle Tignegré, says the course helped him understand more about the background genetics, statistical analysis and data management involved in the process of molecular breeding. “Because of the course, we are now able to analyse the genotype data from LGC,” he says.
Mozambique – insects and drought are the problem
In 2010, the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane (UEM) joined the cowpea component of TLI, three years after the project started. “We were a little late to the party because we were busy setting up Mozambique’s first cowpea breeding programme, which only began in 2008,” recalls Rogerio Chiulele, a lecturer at the university’s Faculty of Agronomy and Forestry Engineering and lead scientist for cowpea research in Mozambique for TLI.
That year (2008), UEM received a GCP Capacity building à la carte grant to establish a cowpea-breeding programme for addressing some of the constraints limiting cowpea production and productivity, particularly drought, pests and diseases.
As in Burkina Faso and Senegal, in Mozambique cowpeas are an important source of food, for both protein and profit, particularly for the poor. Cowpeas rank as the fourth most cultivated crop in Mozambique, accounting for about nine percent of the total cultivated area, or an estimated four million hectares of smallholder farms.
Cowpea plants infested by aphids.
Rogerio says that farmers in his country, just as in other parts of Africa, struggle to reach their full yield potential because of climate, pests and diseases. “Several insect pests – such as aphids, flower thrips, nematodes and pod-sucking pests – can substantially reduce cowpea yield and productivity in Mozambique,” he says.
“Cowpea aphids can cause problems at any time in the growing season, but are most damaging during dry weather when they infest seedlings that are stressed from lack of water. In wetter parts of the country, flower thrips – which feed on floral buds – are the most damaging insect pest.” These insects are also major pests in Burkina Faso and Senegal, along with hairy caterpillar (Amsacta moloneyi), which can completely destroy swaths of cowpea seedlings.
Rogerio says breeding for insect resistance and drought tolerance, using marker-assisted techniques, improves breeders’ chances of increased cowpea productivity. “Productivity is key to increasing rural incomes, and new resources can then be invested in other activities that help boost total family income,” says Rogerio. “These new breeding techniques will help us achieve this quicker.”
Three high-yielding varieties to hit the Mozambique market in 2015
Mature cowpea pods ready for harvesting.
Since 2010, Rogerio’s team have quickly caught up to Burkina Faso and Senegal and plan to release three higher yielding new lines with drought tolerance in 2015. One of these lines, CB46, is based on a local cowpea variety crossed with a UCR-sourced American black-eyed pea variety that displays drought tolerance, which potentially has huge market appeal.
“Local varieties fetch, on average, half a US dollar per kilogram, compared to black-eyed pea varieties, whose price is in the region of four to five US dollars,” says Rogerio. “Obviously this is beneficial to the growers, but the benefits for consumers are just as appealing. The peas are better quality and tastier, and they take half as long to cook compared to local varieties.”
All these extra qualities are important to consider in any breeding programme and are a key objective of the Tropical Legume II (TLII) project (see box above). TLII activities, led by ICRISAT, seek to apply products from TLI to make an impact among farmers.
“TLII focuses on translating research outputs from TLI into tangible products, including new varieties,” says Ousmane Boukar, who works closely with Ndiaga, Issa and Rogerio in TLI and TLII.
Building a community of breeders to sustain success
Cowpea flower with developing pods.
Part of Ousmane’s GCP role as Product Delivery Coordinator for cowpeas was to lead a network of African cowpea and soybean breeders, and he champions the need for breeders to share information and materials as well as collaborating in other ways so as to sustain their breeding programmes post-GCP.
“To sustain integrated breeding practices post-2014, GCP has established Communities of Practice (CoP) that are discipline- and commodity-oriented,” says Ndeye Ndack. “The ultimate goal is to provide a platform for community problem solving, idea generation and information sharing.”
Ousmane says the core of this community was already alive and well before the CoP. “Ndiaga, Issa and I have over 80 years combined experience working on cowpea. We have continually crossed paths and have even been working together on other non-GCP projects over the past seven years.”
One such project the trio worked together on was to release a new drought-tolerant cowpea breeding line, IT97K-499-35, in Nigeria. “The performance of this variety impressed farmers in Mali, who named it jiffigui, which means ‘hope’,” says Ousmane. “We shared these new lines with our partners in Mali and Niger so they could conduct adaptation trials in their own countries.”
For young breeders like Rogerio, the CoP has provided an opportunity to meet and learn from these older partners. “I’ve really enjoyed our annual project meetings and feeling more a part of the world of cowpea breeding, particularly since we in Mozambique are isolated geographically from larger cowpea-producing countries in West Africa.”
For Phil Roberts, instances where more-established researchers mentor younger researchers in different countries give him hope that all the work UCR has done to install new breeding techniques will pay off. “Young researchers represent the future. If they can establish a foothold in breeding programmes in their national programmes, they can make an impact. Beyond having the know-how, it is vital to have the support of the national programme to develop modern breeding effort in cowpea – or any crop.”
Setting up breeders for the next 20 years
Farmer harvesting mature cowpea pods.
In Senegal, Ndiaga is hopeful that the work that the GCP project has accomplished has set up cowpea breeders in his country and others for the next 20 years.
“Both GCP’s and UCR’s commitment to build capacity in developing countries like Senegal cannot be valued less than the new higher yielding, drought-tolerant varieties that we are breeding,” says Ndiaga. “They have provided us with the tools and skills now to continue this research well into the future.
“We are close to releasing several new drought-tolerant and pest- and disease-resistant lines, which is our ultimate goal towards securing Senegal’s food and helping minimise the impact of the hungry period.”
For as long as peoples and countries have traded wheat, drought has continually played a part in dictating its availability and price. Developed countries have become more able to accommodate the bad years by using intensive agricultural practices to grow and store more wheat during more favourable years. However, farmers, traders and consumers are still at the mercy of drought when it comes to wheat availability and prices.
A recent example where drought in just one country inflated the world’s wheat prices was in the People’s Republic of China during 2010–11.
For almost six months, eight provinces in the north of China received little to no rain. Known as the breadbasket of China, these eight provinces grow more than 80 percent of the country’s total wheat and collectively produce more wheat than anywhere else in the world.
It was the worst drought to hit the provinces in 60 years.
With over 1.3 billion mouths to feed, China’s demand for wheat is high and ever increasing. When this demand was coupled with the reduced wheat yield caused by the severe 2010–11 drought, wheat prices around the world rose. While this price rise was beneficial for wheat growers in other countries, it made wheat unaffordable for many consumers and traders in developing nations.
Although this was a one-in-60-year event, previous droughts had already made locals question the sustainability of wheat production in this naturally dry region of China, where water consumption has increased in the past 50 years due to intensive agriculture, industry and a growing and increasingly urbanised population.
Wheat growers and breeders know they need to find wheat varieties and apply practices that will help them adapt to and tolerate drier conditions and still produce sustainable yields.
Luckily, they have help from a community of breeders around the world.
An Uyghur baker displays his bread in Kashi, Xinjiang, China.
Sharing knowledge to improve breeding efficiency and sustainability
Richard Trethowan, professor in plant breeding at the University of Sydney, Australia, remembers the meeting distinctly. “We all got together and thought how we could use what we had learnt during the first phase of GCP [2004–2009] – all the genetics and molecular-breeding work – to deliver new varieties of crops, particularly in countries where it will have the greatest impact.”
Richard explains why China and India were targeted – as the world’s two wheat-production giants – in the video below.
Like China, India is an extremely water-stressed country, with the water table in many places falling at an alarming rate. In North Gujarat alone, an established wheat district in western India, the water table is reported to be dropping by as much as six metres per year.
Delivering wheat varieties that have improved water-use efficiency and higher tolerance to drought will have the greatest impact in these countries, given they are the two largest producers of wheat worldwide.
“Even though the Initiative is set to conclude in 2015, the outcomes have already been absolutely phenomenal for such a short time-bound project, given that wheat is such a complex plant to work with,” exclaims Richard. “While we are still a few years away from releasing new drought-tolerant varieties, we have been able to develop systems and build capacity to reduce the time it takes to develop and release these varieties.”
Tapping into genetic diversity to enhance wheat’s drought and heat tolerance
Spikes of emmer wheat.
One project that impressed Richard was that led by Satish Misra, GCP Principal Investigator and senior wheat breeder at Agharkar Research Institute, Pune, India.
In a collaboration with the University of Sydney, Australia, and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the project identified novel genes associated with drought- and heat-tolerance traits in ancestral wheat lines (of emmer wheat).
Emmer wheat is a minor crop grown mainly in marginal lands, where farmers can produce a small harvest but nowhere near the yield of more elite cultivated lines. Satish explains that emmer wheat lines are very useful for breeders because they have a larger diversity of novel genes than more popular wheat types, such as durum or bread wheat.
Durum wheat spike.
“Durum lines are more commonly used by breeders because of their high yield and hard grain, which is used to make bread wheat and pasta,” Satish says. “However, because of their popularity and continual use in breeding, durum wheat lines have become less and less diverse with years of cultivation.”
The first task was to identify emmer lines that might have genes for drought and heat tolerance. Satish says that CIMMYT played an important part in this process. “They gave us access to their gene bank, which contains almost 2,000 emmer lines. More importantly, they helped us develop a reference set that encapsulated all the diversity found in the emmer lines they had.”
A reference set reduces the number of choices that breeders have to search through, from thousands down to a few hundred – in this case, 300 emmer lines.
“CIMMYT also developed 30 synthetic emmer wheat lines by crossing wild emmer wheat species with domesticated wheat species,” says Satish. “The synthetic lines contain the novel drought- and heat-tolerance genes.”
Satish and Richard’s teams crossed these synthetic lines with durum wheat lines and identified 41 resulting lines with high levels of stress tolerance. These are undergoing further evaluation in India and Australia.
“What Satish has been able to do in five years is amazing and is currently having a big impact in wheat breeding in India and Australia,” says Richard. “We’ve had local breeding companies here in Australia come to us requesting the lines we developed. The same is happening in India, too.”
Reaping existing skills
A baker butters naan bread in Hyderabad, India.
For Richard, the preliminary success of the Wheat RI is due, at least in part, to the speed with which national breeding programmes in both China and India are learning and incorporating new molecular-breeding techniques.
“This was another reason why we chose to focus on China and India: they had the infrastructure and human capacity to start doing this almost immediately,” says Richard. “In other countries where GCP is investing, more time is going into teaching breeders the basics of molecular breeding and genetics. In China and India, they already have that basic understanding and are able to quickly incorporate it into their current programmes.”
This does not mean, however, that the work is not focused on building capacity, given that molecular breeding is still a relatively new concept for many breeders around the world.
Ruilian Jing says the China project is continually working to educate and train wheat breeders in molecular-breeding techniques.
“When we started the project, we found that most institutions that focus on wheat breeding in China had the equipment to do marker-assisted breeding but were unsure how to use it,” says Ruilian, professor in plant breeding at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) and Principal Investigator for the Wheat RI’s drought-tolerant wheat project in China.
Much of Ruilian’s work in China has been in educating these breeders so they can start achieving outcomes.
Younger researchers taking a lead
Ruilian explains that those leading the charge to become educated in molecular-breeding techniques are young researchers, including seven PhD students and one Master’s student supported by the project in China.
One such researcher who is enthusiastically applying these new approaches is Yonggui Xiao, a molecular plant breeder at the Institute of Crop Science, CAAS.
“Working as part of this GCP project gave me my first opportunity to practice using molecular-breeding techniques to improve the quality and yield of wheat under drought conditions,” says Yonggui.
“We have so far successfully used several molecular markers to produce an advanced variety, with higher yield and preferred qualities [taste, grain colour] under water stress, and this will be released to farmers [in 2015].”
Women of the Nakhi people harvest wheat in Songzanlinsi, Yunnan, China.
Yonggui is now expanding the application of the technology to develop varieties with resistance to powdery mildew, a fungal disease that can reduce wheat yields and quality during non-drought years. “Overall, we have been impressed by how these new techniques complement our conventional breeding techniques to improve selection efficiency, in turn reducing the time and costs of producing advanced varieties,” says Yonggui.
Success stories like these make Ruilian’s job easier as she tries to encourage more and more plant breeders to experiment with these new breeding techniques.
At the same time, she is impressed by this new generation of molecular wheat breeders who will ensure that these techniques benefit wheat research in many years to come: “This form of capacity, the human capacity, which we are building, is what will leave the largest legacy in China and help this technology spread from generation to generation and crop to crop.”
Overcoming complex traits, genes and wary breeders
Wheat farmer in India.
Across the Himalayas, Ruilian’s Indian counterpart, Vinod Prabhu, is just as pleased with the progress and results his team are producing.
“Over the last five years, we have discovered several water-use efficiency traits and their related genes, bred new lines to incorporate the genes and traits and run national trials, all of which would be unheard of using only conventional breeding practices,” says Vinod, Head of the Genetics Division at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi and the Principal Investigator for the Wheat RI’s drought-tolerant wheat project in India.
By the end of the projects in November 2015, partners in China and India will deliver 15–20 new wheat lines with drought and heat tolerance, adapted to each country’s conditions. An additional target for both China and India is to produce four wheat varieties with improved water-use efficiency and higher heat tolerance. These varieties will have the potential to cover about 24 million hectares and minimise yield loss from heat or drought, or both, by up to 20–50 percent.
Vinod confides that all these outcomes are far more than what he initially expected they would achieve: “When we started, we had a lot of reservations about the complexity of breeding for drought tolerance in wheat as well as the acceptance and uptake of these new breeding techniques by conventional breeders.”
Vinod’s primary role has been to coordinate the Indian centres working on the project (see box at end). But he has also been working to convince Indian plant breeders that these unconventional, new breeding techniques will improve their efficiency and aid in their quest to breed for heat- and drought-tolerant wheat varieties.
“Many world-leading wheat breeders were wary at first, but they have definitely started to see the merit in using the technology to enhance their conventional methods as we edge closer towards releasing new varieties in such a short time,” says Vinod.
Wheat seed ready for planting in Punjab, India.
Incorporating conventional methods
An aspect of the Wheat RI that Ruilian and Vinod have been continually promoting is the importance of conventional breeding methods. “These new molecular-breeding techniques are only a small part of the whole breeding process,” says Ruilian. “Yes, they provide a big impact, but in the grand scheme of things they need to be viewed as one tool in a breeder’s tool box.”
For more information on conventional versus molecular breeding, or marker-assisted breeding, see our quick guide here on the Sunset Blog.
Phenotyping: How to manage a subjective process
One of the most important processes of the Wheat RI, and plant breeding in general, is phenotyping: measuring and recording observable characteristics of the plant such as drought tolerance or susceptibility to pests and diseases. Breeders phenotype the plants they have developed to see which ones have the traits they are interested in and also – for molecular breeding to be possible – to establish links between specific genes and specific traits.
Unfortunately, phenotyping has caused a bit of trouble for both Chinese and Indian partners. The challenge stems from the fact that one person’s observations about a plant’s phenotype or characteristics may not be the same as another person’s.
“This is always a challenge for any collaborative plant-breeding project,” says Vinod. “Unless all trials are inspected by one person, there will always be a risk of inconsistent observations.
Scientists from South Asia learn phenotyping on a training course at CIMMYT.
To help overcome this inconsistency, one of the first activities of the Wheat RI was to develop phenotyping protocols that allowed researchers in different research institutes and countries to collect comparable data. GCP enlisted Matthew Reynolds, a wheat physiologist at CIMMYT, to help with this.
“Each breeder has their own ways to do things, so it’s important to develop standardised protocols, particularly for a transnational project like this,” explains Matthew. “We developed a few standardised phenotyping manuals and travelled to China to give some intensive hands-on training.”
This problem is not unique to China and India. Another GCP wheat project is providing promising results to help overcome the risk of inconsistency and increase the efficiency and accuracy of phenotyping. Led by Fernanda Dreccer, based at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), in collaboration with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), the project is developing a reliable phenotyping approach to detect drought-adaptive traits in wheat crops using cheap and simple tools.
“For example, using just a camera you can analyse crop cover, which is an important trait for shading the crop and/or trapping heat,” says Fernanda. “The idea was to test different non-invasive, low-cost tools and compare them to find something that would provide accurate and useful data related to identifying drought-tolerance traits.”
Another important aspect of phenotyping that Fernanda’s project is helping with is constant and consistent analysis of a crop’s surroundings. “It’s just as important to measure the environment of the crop as it is [to measure] the crop itself to make a correlation between an environmental impact and a plant’s reaction,” says Fernanda.
Since the static nature of single observations can give a misleading or incomplete picture, Fernanda’s team is integrating live crop, weather and soil data through mobile sensors in the field with the aim of producing constant phenotypic information. “This will provide new insights into the interaction between the genotype and the environment. This in turn will help to accelerate the detection of wheat genotypes better suited to cope with drought.”
A young farmer in her wheat field in India.
Managing the tsunami of phenotyping data
Although a plant breeder’s work should be simplified and made more efficient by combining molecular-breeding technologies with advanced phenotyping techniques and protocols, the reality is not necessarily so easy.
There are many steps to the plant-breeding puzzle, all of which produce data. The more advanced the techniques and – in the case of wheat – the more complex the plant’s genome, the more pieces of data breeders need to sift through to find solutions.
Before the Wheat RI started, Richard saw that this impending tsunami of data was going to be a problem in both China and India: “Both countries had the skills to carry out these advanced techniques, but they didn’t have in place a strong culture of data management.”
This problem is by no means unique to China and India, Richard says: “Most of the time, plant breeders keep a log of all their data in a book or Excel sheet. However, these data often get lost once a project is completed.”
GCP recognised this problem before the RIs began and has, since 2009, been developing the Breeding Management System (BMS) – a suite of interconnected software designed to manage the mass of data – as part of its Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP).
“The BMS is the first tool that can help breeders record and collate their data in a coordinated way,” says Richard. “This is vital in a project like this, which has several institutes across three countries working towards a similar product.”
Vinod agrees with Richard, adding that the BMS was relatively easy for his Indian partners to learn and use: “The BMS is great as we have no way of losing data.”
Rolling out the BMS in China, though, has been more difficult due to the language barrier. Ruilian explains: “We are now working towards translating the IBP, but it will be an ongoing challenge as the platform continually changes and is updated.”
Ruilian is optimistic that a translated BMS will become a viable tool for Chinese breeders in the future. “The more that we collaborate with other countries, the more a tool like this becomes important to have.”
Vinod credits two things for the successful development of new wheat varieties and integration of new breeding techniques and data-management systems: a clear, logical plan and friendly competition between China and India to breed the first new drought-tolerant varieties.
“The initial plan, which Richard helped develop in Montpellier, was logical and well thought out. Although we initially thought it was overambitious in its objectives, we have been able to meet them so far, which is a great credit to the team and their enthusiasm to try these new technologies and see for themselves the benefits first hand.
“What has also helped is our competitive spirit, as we would like to achieve the objectives before the Chinese breeders do. Our breeders are always asking me for updates on how China is progressing!” Vinod adds, with a chuckle.
Ruilian agrees with Vinod’s assessment, adding: “The project would not have been as successful if it was solely national. It needed the international collaboration and friendly competition to help build confidence and drive.”
For Richard this international collaboration, between two very different and proud cultures, allowed the project to broaden its scope and troubleshoot quicker than usual.
“They [the Chinese and Indian researchers] think about problems in different ways. When you get a group of people in a room from different backgrounds, you can come up with great integrated plans, things you would never have come up with within just a national team,” says Richard.
Watch Richard on the beauty of diversity in research partnerships in the video below.
Securing wheat production into the future
With the project concluding in 2015, both the Chinese and Indian researchers are working towards completing national trials and releasing their new, advanced drought-tolerant varieties to farmers and other breeders. However, for Richard, the impact of the Wheat RI may not be fully recognised for 10–20 years.
“The initial new varieties that both China and India develop will help farmers in the short term. However, as both countries become more advanced in using the technology, future varieties are sure to be more and more robust. What’s more, these techniques and tools are sure to filter through to other national wheat-breeding programmes, as well as to other crops.”
In the case of wheat, new drought-tolerant varieties will help secure both China’s and India’s wheat industries, helping to stabilise wheat yields, and consequently prices, the world over. These new varieties may not be the silver bullet for eliminating the risks of drought, but they will go a long way to mitigating its impact.
Donkeys bring home the wheat harvest in Qinghai, China.