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Oct 192015

IBP-logoBy 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.

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.

Marker-assisted selection – highlighting genes that control desired traits This technique involves using molecular markers (also known as DNA markers) to flag the presence of specific genes associated with desired traits and trace their descent from one generation to the next. These markers are themselves fragments of DNA that highlight particular genes or genetic regions by binding near them. To use an analogy, think of a story as the plant’s genome: its words are its 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 them. Plant breeders can generally use molecular markers early in the breeding process to determine whether plants they are developing will have the desired trait.

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.

Photo: HarvestPlus

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.

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.

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.

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

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.

Breeders and researchers rate the Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP) “IBP is an important tool in current and future enhancement of national breeding programmes.” –– Hesham Agrama, Soybean Breeder, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Zambia “The tools being developed with IBP will form the basis of crop information management at the Semiarid Prairie Agricultural Research Centre [SPARC] and other Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research centres.” –– Shawn Yates, Quantitative Genetics Technician, SPARC, Canada  “We have successfully integrated IBP with our lentil programme and also included IBP in the training that we conduct regularly for the benefit of our partners in national agricultural research systems.” –– Shiv Agrawal, lentil breeder, International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, Syria “Our institute has embraced use of the Breeding Management System and IBP, and we are already seeing results in improved data management within the Seed Co group research function.” –– Lennin Musundire, senior maize breeder, Seed Co Ltd, Zimbabwe

Mark Sawkins, IBP Deployment Manager for West and Central Africa, is helping to coordinate the formation and integration of the regional hubs within key agricultural institutes, including the Africa Rice Center in Benin, Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa (BecA) in Kenya, Centre d’étude régional pour l’amélioration de l’adaptation à la sécheresse (CERAAS) in Senegal, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) in China, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in India, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria, and the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC) in Thailand. Several further hubs are planned in additional countries, including in Latin America.

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.

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.

Photo: V Boire/IBP

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.”

From the GCP nest to world-scale deployment

IBP has been the single largest GCP investment. From 2009 to 2014, GCP allocated USD 22 million to the initiative, with financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the European Commission, the UK Department for International Development, CGIAR and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. This represented 15 percent of GCP’s entire budget.

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.

More links

Mar 262015


Photo: R Cheung/Flickr

Wheat growing in China.

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.

Photo: E Zotov/Flickr

An Uyghur baker displays his bread in Kashi, Xinjiang, China.

Sharing knowledge to improve breeding efficiency and sustainability

In March 2009, 70 international plant breeding leaders and experts from the public and private sector converged in Montpellier, France, as part of a CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP) initiative to draw up roadmaps to improve plant-breeding efficiency in developing countries.

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.”

The resulting roadmap for wheat became the GCP Wheat Research Initiative (RI), with Richard as Product Delivery Coordinator. It had two very clear destinations in mind: China and India.

Richard explains why China and India were targeted – as the world’s two wheat-production giants – in the video below.

Wheat Research Initiative developed capacity and infrastructure in China and India The Wheat RI aimed to integrate genetic diversity for water-use efficiency and heat tolerance into Chinese and Indian breeding programmes. Some aspects of the RI sprang from work led by Francis Ogbonnaya of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and by Peter Langridge of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG). Jean-Marcel Ribaut, GCP Director, says of the work: “The GCP’s RI approach was not about large impacts in the short term. Rather, what GCP demonstrated was definitive proof-of-concept of the power of molecular breeding to increase crop productivity, thereby improving food security. Other agencies are now able to upscale and outscale the proven concept at the national, or even at the regional level.”

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

Photo: Rasbak/Wikimedia Commons

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.

Photo: X Fonseca/CIMMYT

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  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.”

Reaping existing skills

Photo: R Pamnani/Flickr

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].”

Photo: R Saltori/Flickr

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

Photo: CCAFS

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.

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

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.”

Conventional vs marker-assisted breeding To conventionally breed a new wheat variety, two wheat plants are sexually crossed. The aim is to combine the favourable traits from both parent plants and exclude their unwanted traits in a new and better plant variety. This is achieved by selecting the best plants from among the progeny over several generations. Marker-assisted breeding allows breeders to be much more efficient and targeted in their activities. It still requires breeders to sexually cross plants, but they can use genetic information to tell them which plants have particular genes for useful traits, which helps them to choose which parent plants to cross, and then to confirm which of the progeny have inherited the desired gene without necessarily growing and phenotyping all of them under conditions that would express that trait.

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.”

Photo: R Martin/CIMMYT

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.”

Watch Richard on adoption of IBP tools in the video below.

Friendly competition helping inspire India’s wheat breeders

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.

Photo: Rosino/Flickr

Donkeys bring home the wheat harvest in Qinghai, China.

The GCP Wheat Research Initiative involved 10 institutes from China, India and Australia: China – Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (Institute of Crop Science; National Key Facility for Crop Gene Resources and Genetic Improvement) Hebei Academy of Agricultural Sciences Shanxi Academy of Agricultural Sciences  Xinjiang Academy of Agricultural Sciences India – Indian Agricultural Research Institute Punjab Agricultural University Agharkar Research Institute  National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology Jawaharlal Nehru Krishi Vishwa Vidyalaya Australia – Plant Breeding Institute, University of Sydney The Wheat RI built on several previous GCP projects conducted by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

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