“There is a clear need to develop a range of varieties that meet diverse requirements”
For 30 years, Ousmane Boukar has been working towards a singular goal: to improve and secure cowpea production in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Cowpeas are very important in sub-Saharan Africa,” he says. “They are an important source of protein, and contribute to the livelihood and food security of millions.”
Despite their dietary importance, cowpea yields in Africa are low – on average a mere 10 to 30 percent of their potential. This is primarily because of attacks from insects and diseases, but is often further compounded by chronic drought.
Since 2007, Ousmane has worked for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) as cowpea breeder and Station Representative in Kano, Nigeria. As a breeder, his mission is to improve yields by identifying additional genetic sources of resistance to pests and diseases, tolerance of parasitic weeds, improved drought tolerance and adaptation to low soil fertility.
To accomplish this, he searches for genes associated with these kinds of valuable traits. He then uses this information to develop breeding populations comprising of plant lines with multiple useful traits, and works with farmers to grow these populations to make sure they do grow well in the field before releasing them as new varieties.
“Cowpea breeding is very challenging because of the range of production environments and cropping systems, and the diverse preferences among consumers and producers for grain, leaves, pods and fodder,” Ousmane says. “There is a clear need to develop a range of varieties that meet those diverse requirements, combining high yield potential and resistance to the major production constraints.”
A farmer’s field full of cowpea plants (with maize at the background) in Kano, Nigeria.
Joining an international programme
The same year Ousmane joined IITA, he joined forces in a new collaboration with cowpea breeders and geneticists from Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Senegal and the USA. He was Product Delivery Coordinator for the cowpea component of the Tropical Legumes I project (TLI) – a seven-year project funded by the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP) that sought to use marker-assisted breeding techniques to breed high yielding, drought-tolerant and insect- and disease-resistant varieties of four important legumes.
Cowpea plants at podding stage.
“TLI has had a huge impact in Africa in terms of developing capacity to carry out marker-assisted breeding. This form of breeding helps us to breed new varieties in three to five years instead of seven to ten years.”
Key outcomes from the cowpea component of the project were a cowpea genome map and molecular markers that have helped breeders like Ousmane locate the genes in cowpeas that determine and regulate desirable traits. These markers can be used like flags to indicate which potential parent plants have useful genes, and which of the progeny from each cross have inherited them, making breeding more efficient.
“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 such as thrips [insects which feed on cowpeas] and Striga [a parasitic weed]. We expect these lines to be available to plant breeders by the end of 2015.”
Ousmane says the success of the cowpea component of TLI owes much to the pre-existing relationships the partners had before the project. “TLI was an extension of a USAID collaborative project [Bean/Cowpea Collaborative Research Support Program] we had been working on since 2002,” he explains. “I had also crossed paths with breeders in Senegal, Burkina Faso and USA many times when I worked with the Institute of Agricultural Research for Development [IRAD] in Cameroon.”
Striga in a cowpea plot.
Ousmane was with IRAD in his home country of Cameroon from 1990 to 2007. He also worked by correspondence during this time to complete both his Master’s and Doctoral degrees in Plant Breeding and Genomics from the University of Purdue in Indiana, USA. His thesis involved characterising and mapping Striga resistance in cowpeas. Striga is a parasitic weed widespread in West Africa, which can reduce susceptible cultivar yields by up to 100 percent. Resistance within the host plant is the only practical control method (see ‘Cowpea in between’, GCP Partner and Product Highlights 2006, page 23).
A trader sells cowpeas in Moniya market, Ibadan, Nigeria.
Taking the lead in the Community of Practice
In 2011, in addition to his TLI and Product Delivery Coordinator roles, Ousmane became the coordinator of the Cowpea Community of Practice (CoP) – a newly created network founded by GCP to develop capacity in Africa and help GCP researchers share their new expertise in molecular breeding.
“The CoP was designed for cowpea researchers and people interested in cowpeas to ask questions and to share their expertise and knowledge, particularly with people who don’t have the experience, such as graduate students or breeders new to cowpeas,” Ousmane explains. Members are from Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania and USA.
“My role as coordinator is to collect ideas, find funding opportunities, and understand member expertise and resources so I can direct members of the community to the right people.”
Ghanaian farmer Alanig Bawa drying cowpeas.
Ousmane says the position has opened his eyes to all the new research going on in cowpea. The number of new researchers in the field also heartens him. “There are more researchers that are practising molecular breeding than ever before, which is great, because we can enhance their impact and efficiency in cowpea breeding.”
As membership grows, Ousmane is confident that the community and capacity that have developed with help from GCP will remain sustainable after GCP’s close at the end of 2014. “Governments in Nigeria and Burkina Faso understand the importance of cowpeas and are investing in our research. As the set of skills and the number of personnel grow in other sub-Saharan countries, we are confident that cowpea research will expand and produce higher yielding varieties for their farmers.”
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.”
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.”
Farmer Maria Mtele holds recently harvested orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes in a field in Mwasonge, Tanzania.
Sweetpotato has a long history as a lifesaver. The Japanese used it when typhoons demolished their rice fields. It kept millions from starvation in famine-plagued China in the early 1960s and came to the rescue in Uganda in the 1990s, when a virus ravaged the cassava crop.
In sub-Saharan Africa, sweetpotato is proving crucial in the fight against blindness, disease and premature death among children under five. And, as agriculture becomes more market-oriented across the continent, sweetpotato has some significant advantages: it requires fewer inputs and less labour than other crops such as maize, tolerates marginal growing areas and can mature within four months.
On these fertile grounds, researchers across the globe are not underestimating the importance of sweetpotato as a staple crop.
“Yields achieved by resource-poor farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are typically low,” says Roland Schafleitner of the International Potato Center (CIP), based in Peru.
“Improved and well-adapted sweetpotato varieties with increased tolerance to drought, pests and diseases will have a positive impact on food and income security in sub-Saharan Africa and can significantly contribute to increasing productivity,” he says.
At the outset of the work, Roland says: “Breeding efforts were limited by the crop’s genetic complexity and the lack of information available about its genetic resources.
“It was clear that if we could develop genetic tools and make concerted efforts towards understanding the gene pool of sweetpotato, the breeding potential of the crop would improve.”
Farmer Mwanaidi Rhamdani at work in an orange-fleshed sweetpotato field in Mwasonge, Tanzania.
Sub-Saharan Africans getting their vitamin A from sweetpotato
Malnutrition does not always mean a simple lack of calories; research suggests that nutrient shortfalls are an even bigger killer. Vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of blindness, infectious disease and premature death among children under five and pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
Sweetpotato comes in a wide range of colours. Varieties with dark orange flesh are naturally very rich in the pigment beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A. However, the sweetpotatoes traditionally grown in Africa are pale-fleshed and low in beta-carotene. African consumers were not used to eating colourful sweetpotato – and these orange-fleshed varieties were in any case not well adapted African growing conditions.
Recent years have therefore seen a collaborative effort by researchers across the world to breed orange-fleshed sweetpotato varieties fortified with high levels of beta-carotene, and even enriched with other nutrients, that have also been crossed with local varieties and so are adapted to local conditions and tastes. A crucial part of these efforts has also been to create public awareness and encourage people to grow, eat and buy these new varieties.
Two cheeky young chappies from Mozambique enjoy the sweet taste of orange-fleshed sweetpotato rich in beta-carotene, or pro-vitamin A.
All of this adds to the growing momentum behind sweetpotato. The growing awareness of sweetpotato’s potential nutritional benefits for the poor and food insecure, as well as its value for subsistence farmers as a reliable crop that withstands drought and requires minimal inputs, mean that it is growing in significance.
Orange-fleshed sweetpotato can be used to make a variety of tasty products from doughnuts to chapati.
More than 95% of the world’s sweetpotato crop is grown in developing countries, where it is the fifth most important staple food crop. It is particularly important in many African countries: Madagascar in Southern Africa; Nigeria in West Africa; and those surrounding the Great Lakes in East and Central Africa – Uganda, Malawi, Angola and Mozambique.
According to 2013 figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 3.6 million hectares of sweetpotato were harvested in Africa. While the average global yield of sweetpotato per hectare was 14.8 tonnes, across all East African countries in 2013 it was only half this, at 7.1 tonnes per hectare. In West African nations the average yield was even worse, at 3.7 tonnes per hectare.
Farmers are unable to make the most of their crops because the varieties available to them, including traditional varieties (or landraces) have low resistance to viral diseases and insect pests, and poor tolerance to drought. It is therefore crucial that when developing new varieties breeders are able to efficiently incorporate pest and disease resistance and drought tolerance traits.
New DNA markers identified for sweetpotato disease
The sweetpotato virus disease (SPVD) is the most serious disease affecting sweetpotato in sub-Saharan Africa. It often causes serious yield losses of up to 80–90 percent.
The disease is the result of joint infection by two viruses: the sweetpotato feathery mottle virus and the sweetpotato chlorotic stunt virus. Of the two, the stunt virus is the more problematic.
Wolfgang Grüneberg, also from CIP, says that, in the years 2006–2008, 52 new DNA markers were developed as part of GCP-funded research to improve marker-assisted selection for resistance to the disease.
“The results,” says Wolfgang, Principal Investigator for the research, “looked promising for developing a large number of orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes with resistance to SPVD.”
Immediately following the development of the markers, two varieties of sweetpotato were developed using a cloned gene, Resistan, known to confer resistance to the virus. The first variety was used to improve an SPVD test system so that the disease could be diagnosed earlier if a crop was affected. The second variety underwent field tests in regions in Uganda that were highly affected by the disease.
Sweetpotato vines and roots.
Mobilising the genetic diversity of sweetpotato for breeding
The goals of the GCP-supported work were to develop a diverse genetic resource base for sweetpotato and stimulate the use of new tools in ongoing breeding programmes.
To help transfer this work from high-end laboratories to resource-poor research labs in developing countries, GCP promoted collaboration across institutions and borders. Researchers from Brazil, Mozambique, Uganda and Uruguay worked together on sweetpotato genetic research projects.
As Roland explains, the basic first steps needed to begin to ‘mobilise’ the genetic diversity of sweetpotato were developing a reference set of varieties and improving genomics tools to work with polyploid crops, i.e. those possessing multiple sets of chromosomes, such as sweetpotato.
GCP-supported researchers in Peru and sub-Saharan Africa defined a reference set of 472 varieties of sweetpotato, carefully selected and honed to represent both the diversity of the crop and its most important agronomical and nutritional traits.
“Based on a reference set, genetic markers can be developed that are associated with important characteristics of the crop and can help breeders to select favourable genotypes,” says Roland.
“Based on these sequences,” says Roland, “molecular markers have been designed that can help breeders and gene-bank curators to assess the genetic diversity of their accessions and to perform genetic mapping studies.
“Today, techniques that yield a much larger number of markers for genetic studies and selection are accessible for sweetpotato,” he says.
Mwanaidi Rhamdani (left) works with Maria Mtele in an orange-fleshed sweetpotato field in rural Tanzania.
The genetic lifelines reach Africa
Sweetpotato is one of the most important staple crops in Mozambique, ranking in third position after cassava and maize. The areas harvested in Mozambique in 2013 were 1.7 million hectares of maize, 780,000 hectares of cassava and 120,000 hectares of sweetpotato.
A child eats cooked orange-fleshed sweetpotato in Uganda.
GCP funded breeders in Mozambique and Uganda to learn how to identify genetic markers that would prove useful for future sweetpotato breeding.
“Our African partners visited us at CIP and helped us complete the work on identifying markers,” recalls Roland. “This provided the opportunity for direct ‘technology transfer’ to breeders in the target region.”
The collaboration had, for the first time, created a critical amount of genetic and genomics resources for sweetpotato. The resulting Sweetpotato Gene Index and the new markers were published in a peer-reviewed journal, BMC Genomics (2010) 11:604.
The new genetic resources are in use at CIP in Peru and in breeding programmes in Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Uganda, Uruguay and the USA for the assessment of the genetic diversity of germplasm collections.
“The markers have been used for diversity analysis, especially at the CIP gene bank, and also in Africa,” says Roland, who says the markers will help future research.
“Such analysis guides germplasm conservation decisions, and diversity studies are a great tool to develop core collections and composite genotype sets – subsets of the whole collection – which allow for more practical screening for specific traits than large collections.”
A farmer harvests her pearl millet crop in Ghana’s Upper West Region.
Pearl millet is the only cereal crop that can be grown in some of the hottest and driest regions of Asia and Africa. It is a staple provider of food, nutrition and income for millions of resource-poor people living on these harsh agricultural lands.
Even though pearl millet is well adapted to growing in areas characterised by drought, poor soil fertility and high temperatures, “there are limited genetic tools available for this orphan crop,” reported researcher Tom Hash at the International Crop Science Congress 10 years ago.
“The people who relied on this crop in such extreme environments had not benefitted from the ‘biotechnology revolution’, or even the ‘green revolution’ that dramatically increased food grain production on irrigated lands over a generation ago,” adds Tom, now Principal Scientist (Millet Breeding) in the Dryland Cereals Research Program of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). This lack of research dividends was despite the fact that pearl millet is the sixth most important cereal crop globally.
The use of genetic technologies to improve pearl millet had already made some advances through work carried out in the United Kingdom. The GCP initiative was established to improve food security in developing countries by expanding such available genetic work to create crops bred to tolerate drought, disease and poor soils.
With financial support from GCP, and with the benefit of lessons learnt from parallel GCP genetic research, ICRISAT scientists were able to develop more advanced tools for breeding pearl millet.
He says it is the high protein content of pearl millet that makes it such a crucial crop for developing countries – in Africa, this is the reason people use pearl millet for weaning babies.
“It was interesting to us that African people have used pearl millet as a weaning food for millennia. The reason why was not clear to us until we assessed the protein content,” says Mark. “Its seed has 13–22 percent protein, remarkable for a cereal crop, whereas maize has only eight percent protein, and sorghum has only two percent digestible protein.”
Pearl millet growing in Kenya.
Tom Hash agrees, adding: “More importantly, pearl millet grain has much higher levels of the critically important mineral micronutrients iron and zinc, which are important for neurological and immune system development.
“These mineral micronutrients, although not present in a highly available form, can improve blood iron levels when used in traditional pearl millet-based foods. Pearl millet grain, when fed to poultry, can provide a potentially important source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are also essential for normal neurological development.”
Pearl millet endowed with genetic potential
A farmer with his pearl millet harvest in India.
In a treasure-trove of plant genetic resources, thousands of samples, or accessions, of pearl millet and its wild relatives are kept at ICRISAT’s gene banks in India and Niger.
For pearl millet alone, in 2004 ICRISAT had 21,594 types of germplasm in its vaults at its headquarters in India. This represents a huge reservoir of genetic diversity that can be mined for data and for genetic traits that can be used to improve pearl millet and other crops.
Between 2005 and 2007, with support from GCP, scientists from ICRISAT set to work to do just that, mining these resources for qualities based on observed traits, geographical origin and taxonomy.
Hari D Upadhyaya, Principal Scientist and Director of Genebank at ICRISAT, led the task of developing and genotyping a ‘composite collection’ of pearl millet. To do this, the team created a selection that reduced 21,594 accessions down to 1,021. This collection includes lines that are tolerant to drought, heat and soil salinity; others resistant to blast, downy mildew, ergot, rust and smut; and accessions resistant to multiple diseases.
A traditional pearl millet variety growing in India.
The collection also includes types of pearl millet with high seed iron and zinc content (from traditional farmer varieties, or landraces, from Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Togo), high seed protein content, high stalk sugar content, and other known elite breeding varieties.
The final collection comprised 710 landraces, 251 advanced breeding lines, and 60 accessions from seven wild species.
The GCP-supported scientists then used molecular markers to fingerprint the DNA of plants grown from the collection. Molecular markers are known variations in the sequence of the genetic code, found in different versions within a species, which act as flags in the genome sequence. Some individual markers may be associated with particular useful genes, but markers are useful even without known associations, as the different flags can be compared between samples. In the pearl millet research, scientists searched for similarities and differences among these DNA markers to assess how closely or distantly related the 1,021 accessions were to each other.
This was not only a big step forward for the body of scientific knowledge on pearl millet, but also for the knowledge and skills of the scientists involved. “The GCP work did make some significant contributions to pearl millet research,” says Tom, “mainly by helping a critical mass of scientists working on pearl millet to learn how to appropriately use the genetic tools that have been developed in better-studied fungi, plants and animals (including people).”
GCP extends know-how to Africa
Comparisons of good and bad pearl millet yields in Ghana’s Upper West Region, which has suffered failed rains and rising temperatures.
The semiarid areas of northern and eastern Uganda are home to a rich history and culture, but they are difficult environments for successful food production and security.
In this region, pearl millet is grown for both commercial and local consumption. Its yields, although below the global average, are reasonable given that it is grown on poor sandy soils where other crops fail. Yet despite being a survivor in these harsh drylands, pearl millet can still be affected by severe drought and disease.
GCP helped kick-start work to tackle these problems. With financial support from GCP, and through ACCI, Geofrey Lubade, a scientist from Uganda, was able to study and explore breeding pearl millet that would be suitable for northern Uganda and have higher yields, drought tolerance and rust resistance.
Geofrey now plans to develop the best of his pearl millet lines for registration and release in Uganda, which he expects will go a long way in helping the resource-poor.
But Geofrey’s success is just one example of the benefits from GCP-support. Thanks to GCP, Mark Laing says that his students at ACCI have learnt invaluable skills that save significant time and money in the plant-breeding process.
“Many of our students, with GCP support, have been involved in diversity studies to select for desirable traits,” says Mark – and these students are now working on releasing new crop varieties.
He says that African scientists directly benefitted from the GCP grants for training in biotechnology and genetic studies.
Their work, along with that of a number of other scientists, will have a huge impact on plant breeding in developing countries – long term.
A farmer inspects his millet crop in northwest Ghana.
As Mark explains, once breeders have built up a head of steam there is no stopping them. “Plant breeders take time to start releasing varieties, but once they get started, then they can keep generating new varieties every year for many years,” he says. “And a good variety can have a very long life, even more than 50 years.
“We have already had a significant impact on plant breeding in some African countries,” says Mark. But perhaps more importantly, he says, the work has changed the status of plant breeding and pearl millets as a subject: “It used to be disregarded, but now it is taken seriously as a way to have an impact on agriculture.”
For research and breeding products, see the GCP Product Catalogue and search for pearl millet.
“I can’t talk enough about the positive stories from the Generation Challenge Programme [GCP]. It initiated something new. I cannot measure its benefits for my country, for myself and for the sorghum-breeding and -producer communities. Right now, GCP has reached its sunset; but for me it is a sunrise, because what we have been left with is so very important.”
Growing up in a farming community in Mali, on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, plant breeder Niaba Témé knows the ups and downs of farming in the harsh, volatile semiarid regions of Africa.
“I used to love harvesting the millet and helping my mother with her groundnut crops,” he remembers fondly. “We grew other dryland crops too, like sorghum, cowpeas, Bambara nuts, sesame and dah.”
Niaba’s village of Yendouma-Sogol is one of many villages balanced along the edge of the Bandiagara escarpment – 150 kilometres of sandstone cliffs soaring hundreds of metres above the sandy plains below. The region is considered one of the most challenging places in the world to be a farmer. The climate is harsh, with the average daily temperature on the dry, sun-scorched plains rarely falling below 30°C and often exceeding 40°C during the hottest months of the year. With no major water source available for drinking, cropping and livestock husbandry, the threat of drought is ever-present here, as it is across much of Africa’s semiarid landscape.
While much of Mali’s irrigated agriculture relies on water from the River Niger, villages like Niaba’s depend entirely on the 500 or so millimetres of rainfall they receive during the July–August wet season. In the years that the rains didn’t come, Niaba’s family were unable to harvest anything at all. The repeated failure of his parents’ crops – coupled with a natural interest in science – inspired Niaba to embark on a career where he could help farming families like his own defend themselves against the risks of drought and extreme temperatures.
Farmland in Diouna, Mali. Farmers here must contend with the Sahel’s dry, sandy soil and whatever limited rainfall the clouds bring to grow sorghum, millet, maize, and other crops.
Niaba later spent 11 years in the USA completing a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and finally PhD in agronomy at Texas Tech University before returning home to Mali in 2007, where he was soon recruited by Mali’s Institut d’Économie Rurale (IER) to take charge of their new biotechnology lab at the Centre Régional de Recherche Agronomique.
Hand milling of sorghum grains – an arduous task, mostly carried out by poor women in the drylands of Africa.
Drought-hardy crops such as sorghum are ideal for Mali’s conditions, where more water-intensive crops such as maize simply cannot survive. Millions of poor rural people across Africa depend on sorghum in their day-to-day lives: it is eaten in many forms, used to make alcoholic beverages and as animal fodder, and is converted into biofuel for cooking.
But even sorghum has its limits. While the demand for it has doubled in West Africa in the last 20 years, productivity has generally remained low, with an average yield of only one tonne per hectare for traditional varieties in Mali. This is mostly due to post-flowering drought, poor soils and farming conditions, and limited access to quality, high-yielding seed. As rainfall patterns become increasingly erratic and variable across the world, scientists warn of the need to improve sorghum’s broad adaptability to drought, to ensure future food security in Africa.
The GCP Sorghum RI, with Niaba’s help, aimed to support the development of new breeds of sorghum that could survive better on less water in drought-stricken parts of Africa. It sought to improve sorghum yield and quality for African farmers and, in turn, improve the livelihoods and food security of communities across sub-Saharan Africa.
“We have been collaborating with researchers at DAFF and The University of Queensland since 2009, to introduce what is called the ‘stay-green’ drought-resistant gene into our local sorghum varieties,” says Niaba.
Left to right: Niaba Témé with David Jordan (Australia), Sidi B Coulibaly (Mali) and Andrew Borrell (Australia), visiting an experiment at Hermitage Research Facility in Queensland, Australia.
Niaba’s no longer green when it comes to using stay-green
Stay-green is a drought adaptation trait that allows sorghum plants to stay alive and maintain green leaves for longer during post-flowering drought. This means the plants can keep growing and produce more grain in drier conditions. It has contributed significantly to an increase in sorghum yields, using less water, in north-eastern Australia and southern USA for the last two decades.
GCP’s stay-green project aimed to evaluate the potential for introducing stay-green into Mali’s local sorghum varieties, enriching Malian pre-breeding material for the trait, and training African sorghum researchers, such as Niaba, in the methods of improving yields and drought resistance in sorghum breeding lines from both Australia and Mali.
A sorghum farmer in Mali.
“In Australia we learnt about association mapping, population genetics and diversity, molecular breeding, crop modelling using climate forecasts, and sorghum physiology,” says Niaba.
Learning to use molecular markers was particularly exciting, he says, “because molecular markers make it easier to see if the plant being bred has the gene related to drought tolerance, without having to go through the lengthy process of growing the plant to maturity and risk missing the trait through visual inspection.”
Niaba says the molecular training he received in Australia complemented previous training he had received through a collaborative GCP-funded project with Agropolis–CIRAD and Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, in which he learnt to use molecular markers to identify and monitor key regions of sorghum’s genome in consecutive breeding generations through a process called marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS).
A large part of GCP’s focus is building such capacity among developing country partners to carry out crop research and breeding independently in the future, so they can continue developing new varieties with drought adaptation relevant to their own environmental conditions.
“Our time in Australia was an intense but rewarding experience, more so for the fact that between the efforts of Australia and Mali, we have now developed new drought-tolerant crops which will enhance food security for my country,” says Niaba. “Similarly with the help of Agropolis–CIRAD and Syngenta, we are using molecular markers to improve breeding efficiency of sorghum varieties more adapted to the variable environment of Mali.”
Niaba (foreground) examining a sorghum panicle at trials in Mali in 2009.
“In that project, we were trying to enhance sorghum grain yield and quality for the Sudano-Sahelian zone of West Africa using the backcross nested association mapping (BCNAM) approach,” explains Niaba. “This involved using an elite recurrent parent that is already adapted to local drought conditions. The benefit of this approach is that it can lead to detecting elite varieties much faster.”
The approach has the potential to halve the time it takes to develop local sorghum varieties with improved yield and adaptability to drought. The project developed 100 lines for 50 populations from backcrosses carried out with 30 recurrent parents. The lines are now being validated in Mali.
Agronomists inspect a field of sorghum in Mali.
Niaba says such successful collaborations and capacity development opportunities have been made possible only through GCP support.
“We had some contacts before, but we didn’t have the funds or skills to really get into a collaboration. Now we’re motivated and are making connections with other people so we can continue working with the material we have developed.
“GCP’s time may be ending, but it very much represents a new day – a sunrise for the work we are doing with sorghum here in Mali.”
GCP-supported researchers aimed high: they wanted to contribute to food security in the developing world by using the latest advances in crop science and plant breeding.
And with the lives of half of the world’s population directly reliant on their own agriculture, there is a lot at stake. Land degradation, salinity, pollution and excessive fertiliser use are just some of the challenges.
Rice is one of the most critical crops worldwide
Amelia Henry, drought physiology group leader at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), explains why rice was such a critical crop for GCP research. She says rice is grown in a diverse set of environmental settings, often characterised by severe flooding, poor soils and disease.
Cycling through rice fields in Odisha, India.
In Asia, 40 percent of rice is produced in rainfed systems with little or no water control or protection from floods and droughts – meaning rice plants are usually faced with too much or too little water, and rarely get just enough. In addition, 60 percent (29 million hectares) of the rainfed lowland rice is produced on poor and problem soils, including those that are naturally low in phosphorus.
Phosphorus deficiency and aluminium toxicity are two of the most widespread environmental causes of poor crop productivity in acidic soils, where high acid levels upset the balance of available nutrients. And drought makes these problems even worse.
Phosphorus is essential for growing crops. Its commercial use in fertilisers is due to the need to replace the phosphorus that plants have extracted from the soil as they grow. Soils lacking phosphorus are an especially big problem in Africa, and the continent is a major user of phosphate fertilisers. However, inappropriate use of fertilisers can, ironically, acidify soil further, since excess nitrogen fertiliser decreases soil pH.
Meanwhile, high levels of aluminium in soil cause damage to roots and impair crop growth, reducing their uptake both of nutrients like phosphorus and of water – making plants more vulnerable to drought. Aluminium toxicity is a major limitation on crop production for more than 30 percent of farmland in Southeast Asia and South America and approximately 20 percent in East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and North America.
The challenge today is to tap into the genetic codes of key crops such as rice and wheat to feed a growing global population. Science plays a crucial role in identifying genes for traits that help plants tolerate more difficult environmental conditions, and producing crop varieties that contain these genes.
Plant biologists are already developing new rice lines that produce higher yields in the face of reduced water, increasingly scant fertiliser as costs rise, and unproductive soils. However, ‘super’ crops are needed that can combine these qualities and withstand climate changes such as increasing temperatures and reduced rainfall in a century when the world’s population is estimated to reach nearly 10 billion people by 2050.
Bringing the best scientific minds to improve rice varieties
Ambitious in concept, the GCP research focussed on bringing together experts to work on these critical problems of rice production for some of the world’s poorest farmers.
The programme was rolled out in two phases that sought to explore the genetic diversity of key crops and use the most important genes for valuable traits, such as Sigrid’s discovery made in a rice variety that is tolerant of phosphorus-poor soils. Each phase involved dedicated teams in partner countries.
GCP Principal Investigator Hei Leung, from IRRI, says GCP is unique, one of kind: “I love it.” He says GCP has enabled rice researchers and breeders to embrace cutting-edge science through partnerships focussed on improving crop yields in areas previously deemed unproductive.
Hei says GCP wanted to target research during its second phase on those crops that most poor people depend upon. “We wanted to have a programme that is what we call ‘pro-poor’, meaning the majority of the world’s people depends on those crops,” he says.
Rice is the ‘chosen one’ of GCP’s cereal crop research and development, with the biggest slice of GCP’s research activities dedicated to this, the most widely consumed staple food.
It is crucial to increase rice supplies by applying research and development such as that carried out by GCP researchers over the past 10 years, Hei says.
Relying on rice’s small genome in the hunt for drought-tolerance genes
Researchers had been trying to map the genomes of key cereal crops for over two decades. Rice’s genome was mapped in 2004, just as GCP started.
Rice has a relatively small genome, one-sixth the size of the maize genome and 40 times smaller than the wheat genome. This makes it a useful ‘model’ crop for researchers to compare with other crops.
“People like to compare with rice because wheat and maize have very big genomes, and they don’t have the resources,” explains Hei.
After the rice genome had been sequenced, the next step was to focus down to a more detailed level: the individual genes that give rice plants traits such as drought tolerance. Identifying useful genes, and markers that act as genetic ‘tags’ to point them out, gives scientists an efficient way to choose which plants to use in breeding.
One of GCP’s Principal Investigators for rice was Marie-Noëlle Ndjiondjop, a senior molecular scientist with the Africa Rice Center.
“Rice is becoming a very important crop in Africa,” she says. “Production has been reduced by a lot of constraints, and drought is one of the most important constraints that we face in Africa.”
Meet Marie-Noëlle below (or on YouTube), in our series of Q&A videos on rice research in Africa.
Marie-Noëlle’s team recognised that drought tolerance was likely to be a complex trait in rice, involving many genes, due to the mix of physiological, genetic and environmental components that affect how well a plant can tolerate drought conditions. To help discover the rice varieties likely to have improved drought tolerance, Marie-Noëlle’s team used an innovative approach known as bi-parental marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS).
“With such a complex trait, you really need to have all the tools and infrastructure necessary; through GCP we were able to buy the necessary equipment and put in the infrastructure needed to find and test the drought trait in rice lines.
“By using the MARS approach we identified the genetic regions associated with drought and are moving towards developing new rice lines that the African breeder and farmer will be using in the next decade to grow crops that are better able to withstand drought conditions.”
Likewise, Amelia Henry’s IRRI team also developed drought-tolerant lines, particularly for drought-prone areas of South Asia. She says many of the promising deep-rooted or generally drought-tolerant varieties identified in the early decades after IRRI’s foundation in 1960 are still used today as ‘drought donors’.
“Since the strength of our project was the compilation of results from many different sites, this work couldn’t have been done without the GCP partners,” she says. “They taught me a lot about how rice grows in different countries and what problems rice farmers face.”
Hei agrees that GCP partnerships have been crucial, including in the successful breeding of rice with drought tolerance: “They’re getting a 1.5-tonne rice yield advantage under water stress. I mean, that’s unheard of! This is a crop that needs water.”
A rice farmer in Rwanda.
But the researchers could not rest with just one of rice’s problems solved.
Hei says GCP’s initial focus on drought was a good one but then, “I remember saying, ‘We cannot just go for drought. Rice, like all crops, needs packages of traits’.”
He knows that drought is just one problem facing rice farmers, noting “this broadened our research portfolio to include seeking to breed rice varieties with traits of tolerance to aluminium toxicity, salt and poor soils.”
The scope widens: phosphorus-hungry rice and a huge success
Sigrid Heuer was in The Philippines working for IRRI when she became involved in the ground-breaking phosphorus-uptake project for rice.
She took over the project being headed by Matthias Wissuwa. Much earlier, Matthias had noted that Kasalath – a traditional northern Indian rice variety that grew successfully in low-phosphorus soil – must contain advantageous genes. His postdoctoral supervisor, Noriharu Ae, thought that longer roots were likely to be the secret to some rice varieties being able to tolerate phosphorus-deficient soils.
Screening for phosphorus-efficient rice, able to make the best of low levels of available phosphorus, on an IRRI experimental plot in The Philippines. Some types of rice have visibly done much better than others.
Sigrid Heuer used her background in molecular breeding to take up the challenge with GCP to find the genes responsible for the Kasalath variety’s long roots.
“I spent years looking for the gene,” Sigrid says. “It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack; the genomic region where the gene is located is very complex.
“We had little biogenomics support at the time and I had three jobs and two kids; I was spending all my nights trying to find this gene.”
Sigrid Heuer in the field at IRRI.
But one day, Sigrid’s postdoctoral student Rico Gamuyao excitedly called her downstairs to the transgenic greenhouses. “Rico had used transgenic plants to see whether this gene had any effect. He was digging out plants from experimental pods.”
Sigrid says that moment in the Manila labs was the turning point for the project’s researchers.
Matthias’ team had previously identified a genomic region, or locus, named Pup1 (‘phosphorus uptake 1’) that was linked to phosphorus uptake in lines of traditional rice growing in poor soils. However, its functional mechanism remained elusive until the breakthrough GCP-funded project sequenced the locus, showing the presence of a Pup1-specific protein kinase gene, which was named PSTOL1 (‘phosphorus starvation tolerance 1’). The discovery was reported in the prestigious scientific journal Nature on 23 August 2012 and picked up by media around the world.
The gene instructs the plant to grow larger and longer roots, increasing its surface area – which Sigrid compares to having a bigger sponge to absorb more water and nutrients in the soil.
“Plants growing longer roots have more uptake of phosphorus – and PSTOL1 is responsible for this.
“GCP was always there, supporting us and giving us confidence, even when we weren’t sure we were going to succeed,” she recalls. “They really wanted us to succeed, so, financially and from a motivational point of view, this gave us more enthusiasm.”
She adds, jokingly, “With so many people having expectations about the project, it was better not to disappoint.”
For some insight straight from the source, listen to Matthias in our podcosts below. In these two bitesized chunks of wisdom he discusses the importance of phosphorus deficiency and of incorporating PSTOL1 into national breeding programmes; his work in Africa and the possibility of uncovering an African ‘Pup2’; what the PSTOL1 discovery has meant for him; and the essential contribution of international partnerships and GCP’s support.
Members of the IRRI PSTOL1, phosphorus uptake research team chat in the field in 2012. From left to right they are are: Sigrid Heuer, Cheryl Dalid, Rico Gamuyao, Matthias Wissuwa and Joong Hyoun Chin.
Phosphorus-uptake gene not all it seemed – an imposter?
But PSTOL1 was definitely not what it seemed. “It was identified under phosphorus-deficient conditions and the original screen was set up for that,” says Sigrid.
Researchers eventually discovered that Pup1 and the PSTOL1 gene within it were not really all about phosphorus at all: “It turns out it is actually a root-growth gene, which just happens to enhance uptake of phosphorus and other nutrients such as nitrogen and potassium.
“The result is big root growth and maintenance of that growth under stress. If you have improved root growth, there is more access to soil resources, as a plant can explore more soil area with more root fingers.”
Her team showed that overexpression of PSTOL1 gene significantly improves grain yield in varieties growing in phosphorus-deficient soil – by up to 60 percent compared to rice varieties that did not have the gene.
In field tests in Indonesia and The Philippines, rice with the PSTOL1 gene produced about 20 percent more grain than rice without the gene. This is important in countries where rice is grown in poor soils.
A farmer harvests rice in South Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Sigrid, now based in Adelaide at the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics, says the introduction of the new gene into locally adapted rice varieties in different locations across Asia and Africa is expected to boost productivity under low-phosphorus conditions.
“The ultimate measure for these kinds of projects is whether a gene works in different environments. I think we have a lot of evidence that says it does,” she says.
The discovery of PSTOL1 promises to improve the food security of rice farmers on phosphorus-deficient land though assisting them to grow more rice and earn more.
Titbits of further research successes: aluminium tolerance and MAGIC genes
Drought, low-phosphorus soils, aluminium toxicity, diseases, acid soils, climate change… the list seems never-ending for challenges to growing rice. Apart from the successes with drought and phosphorus that GCP scientists achieved, there was to be much more in the works from other GCP researchers.
In Phase II, they worked towards breeding aluminium-tolerant sorghum lines for sub-Saharan Africa, as well as applying what they learnt to discover similar genes in rice and maize.
Hei Leung says GCP leaves a lasting legacy in the development of multiparent advanced generation intercross (MAGIC) populations. These help breeders to identify valuable genes, and from among the populations they can also select lines to use in breeding that have favourable traits, such as being tolerant to environmental stresses, having an ability to grow well in poor soils or being able to produce better quality grain.
“MAGIC populations will leave behind a very good resource towards improving different crop species,” says Hei. “I’m sure that they will expand on their own.”
GCP funded the development of four different MAGIC populations for rice, including both indica and japonica types. And the idea of developing MAGIC populations has spread to other crops, including chickpeas, cowpeas and sorghum.
Meeting the challenges and delivering outcomes to farmers
But with success come the frustrations of getting there, according to Nourollah Ahmadi, GCP Product Delivery Coordinator for rice across Africa. “This is because things are not always going as well as you want.”
Project Delivery Coordinators monitor projects first-hand, conducting on-site visits, advising project leaders and partners and helping them implement delivery plans.
“One of the problems was the overall level of basic education of people who were involved in the project,” Nourollah says.
Rice cultivation in Mali is on the rise.
His work with GCP has opened up new prospects for some of the poorest farmers in the world: “For five years, I have been coordinating one of the rice initiatives implemented by the Africa Rice Center and involving three African countries.” These are Burkina Faso, Mali and Nigeria.
He says GCP has brought much-needed expertise and technical skills to countries which can now use genetic insights to produce improved crops tolerant of drought conditions and poor soils and resistant to diseases. Using new molecular-breeding techniques has provided a more effective way to move forward, still firmly focussed on helping the world’s poorest farmers achieve food security.
“We don’t change direction, we change tools – sometimes you have a bicycle, sometimes you have a car,” Nourollah says.
Hei agrees there have been challenges: “It’s been a bumpy road to get to this point. But the whole concept of getting all the national partners doing genetic resource characterisation is a very good one.
Right now they are enabled; they are not scared about the technology. They can apply it.”
Sigrid says applied research is judged on two scales: “One is the publications and science you’re doing. The other is whether the work has any impact in the field, whether it works in the field. Bringing these two together is sometimes a challenge.”
GCP has managed to meet both challenges. New crop varieties have been released to farmers, and more than 450 scientifically reviewed papers have been published since 2004.
Building on the rice success story and leaving a lasting legacy
The work that GCP-supported researchers have done for rice is also being used in other crops. For example, researchers used comparative genomics to determine if genes the same as or similar to those found in rice are present and operating in the same manner in sorghum and maize.
The GCP team found sorghum and maize varieties that contained genes, similar to rice’s PSTOL1, that also confer tolerance of phosphorus-deficient soil with an enhanced root system. They were then able to develop markers to help breeders in Brazil and Africa identify phosphorus-efficient lines.
The knowledge that GCP-supported rice researchers have generated is shared through communities of practice, through websites, publications, research meetings and the Integrated Breeding Platform.
As Amelia Henry notes, GCP’s achievements will be defined by “the spirit of dedication to openness with research data, results and germplasm and giving credit and support to partners in developing countries.” The work in rice in many ways exemplifies GCP’s collaborative approach, commitment to capacity building and deeply held belief that together we can go so much further in helping farmers.
Unlocking genetic diversity in crops for the resource-poor was at the heart of GCP’s mission, which in 2003 promised ‘a new, unique public platform for accessing and developing new genetic resources using new molecular technologies and traditional means’.
Certainly for poor rice farmers in Asia and Africa, the work that GCP has supported in applying the latest molecular-breeding techniques will lead to rice varieties that will help them produce better crops on poor soils in a changing climate.