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Nov 062015


 Photo: C Schubert/CCAFSWhere to begin a decade-long story like that of the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP)? This time-bound programme concluded in 2014 after successfully catalysing the use of advanced plant breeding techniques in the developing world.

Like all good tales, the GCP story had a strong theme: building partnerships in modern crop breeding for food security. It had a strong cast of characters: a palpable community of staff, consultants and partners from all over the world. And it had a formidable structure – two distinct phases split equally over the decade to first discover new plant genetic information and tools, and then to apply what the researchers learnt to breed more tolerant and resilient crops.

In October 2014, at the final General Research Meeting in Thailand, GCP Director Jean-Marcel Ribaut paid tribute to GCP’s cast and crew: “To all the people involved in GCP over the last 12 years, you are the real asset of the Programme,” he told them.

“In essence, our work has been all about partnerships and networking, bringing together players in crop research who may otherwise never have worked together,” says Jean-Marcel. “GCP’s impact is not easy to evaluate but it’s extremely important for effective research into the future. We demonstrated proofs of concept that can be scaled up for powerful results.”

A significant aspect of GCP’s legacy is the abundance of collaborations it forged and fostered between international researchers. A typical GCP project brought together public and private partners from both developing and developed nations and from CGIAR Centres. In all, more than 200 partners collaborated on GCP projects.

Photo: GCP

Just some of the extended GCP family assembled for the Programme’s final General Research Meeting in 2014.

The idea that the ‘community would pave the way towards success’ was always a key foundation of GCP, according to Dave Hoisington, who was involved with GCP from its conception and was latterly Chair of GCP’s Consortium Committee. “We designed GCP to provide opportunities for researchers to work together,” says Dave. He is a senior research scientist and program director at the University of Georgia, and was formerly Director of Research at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and Director of the Genetic Resources Program and of the Applied Biotechnology Center at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

“GCP was the mechanism that would help us to complete our mission – to tap into the rich genetic diversity of crops and package it so that breeding programme researchers could integrate it into their operations,” says Dave.


A little girl tucks into sorghum porridge in Mali.

The dawn of a new generation

Food security in the developing world continues to be one of the greatest global challenges of our time. One in nine people worldwide – or more than 820 million people – go hungry every day.

Although this figure is currently diminishing, a changing global climate is making food production more challenging for farmers. Farmers need higher yielding crops that can grow with less water, tolerate higher temperatures and poorer soils, and resist pests and diseases.

The turn of the millennium saw rapid technological developments emerging in international molecular plant science. New tools and approaches were developed that enabled plant scientists, particularly in the developing world, to make use of genetic diversity in plants that was previously largely inaccessible to them. These tools had the potential to increase plant breeders’ capacity to rapidly develop crop varieties able to tolerate extreme environments and yield more in farmers’ fields.

Photo: J van de Gevel/Bioversity International

Wheat varieties in a field trial.

Dave was one scientist who early on recognised the significance and potential of this new dawn in plant science. In 2002, while working at CIMMYT, he teamed up with the Center’s then Director General, Masa Iwanaga, and its then Executive Officer for Research, Peter Ninnes – another long-term member of the GCP family who at the other end of the Programme’s lifespan became its Transition Manager. Together with a Task Force of other collaborators from CIMMYT, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and IPGRI (now Bioversity International), they drafted and presented a joint proposal to form a CGIAR Challenge Programme – and so GCP was conceived.

The five CGIAR Challenge Programmes were the early precursors of the current CGIAR Research Programs. They introduced a new model for collaboration among CGIAR Research Centers and with external institutes, particularly national breeding programmes in developing countries.

A programme where the spirit is palpable

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Failed harvest: this Ghanaian farmer’s maize ears are undersized and poorly developed due to drought.

From the beginning, GCP had collaboration and capacity building at its heart. As encapsulated in its tagline, “partnerships in modern crop breeding for food security,” GCP’s aim was to bring breeders together and give them the tools to more effectively breed crops for the benefit of the resource-poor farmers and their families, particularly in marginal environments.

GCP’s primary focus on was on drought tolerance and breeding for drought-prone farming systems, since this is the biggest threat to food security worldwide – and droughts are already becoming more frequent and severe with climate change. However, the Programme made major advances in breeding for resilience to other major stresses in a number of different crops, including acid soils and important pests and diseases. It also sought improved yields and nutritional quality.

The model for the Programme was that it would work by contracting partner institutes to conduct research, initially through competitive projects and later through commissioning. These partnerships would ensure that GCP’s overall objectives were met. For Dave, GCP set the groundwork for modern plant breeding.

“GCP demonstrated that you can tap into genetic resources and that they can be valuable and can have significant impacts on breeding programmes,” he says.

“I think GCP started to guide the process. Without GCP, the adoption, testing and use of molecular technologies would probably have been delayed.”

Photo: Meena Kadri/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Harvesting wheat in India.

Masa Iwanaga, who is now President of the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS), says that the key to the proposal and ultimate success of GCP was the focus on building connections between partners worldwide. “By providing the opportunity for researchers from developed countries to partner with researchers in developing countries, it helped enhance the capacity of national programmes in developing countries to use advanced technology for crop improvement.”

While not all partnerships were fruitful, Jean-Marcel has observed that those participants who invested in partnerships and built trust, understanding and communication produced some of the most successful results. “We created this amazing chain of people, stretching from the labs to the fields,” said Jean-Marcel, discussing the Programme in a 2012 interview.

“Perhaps the best way I can describe it is as a ‘GCP spirit’ created by the researchers we worked with.

“The Programme’s environment is friendly, open to sharing and is marked by a strong sense of community and belonging. The GCP spirit is visible and palpable: you can recognise people working with us have a spirit that is typical of the Programme.”

Exploring gene banks to uncover genetic wealth

GCP started operations in 2004 and was designed in two five-year phases, 2004–2008 and 2009–2013. 2014 was a transition year for orderly closure.

Phase I focussed on upstream research to generate knowledge and tools for modern plant breeding. It mainly consisted of exploration and discovery projects, funded on a competitive basis, pursuing the most promising molecular research and high-potential partnerships.

“GCP’s first task was to go in and identify the genetic wealth held within the CGIAR gene banks,” says Dave Hoisington.

Photo: IITA

Gene bank samples give a small snapshot of cowpea diversity.

CGIAR’s gene banks were originally conceived purely for conservation, but breeders increasingly recognised the tremendous value of studying and utilising these collections. Over the years they were able to use gene banks as a valuable source of new breeding material, but were hampered by having to choose seeds almost blindly, with limited knowledge of what useful traits they might contain.

“We realised we could use molecular tools to help scan the genomes and discover genes in crops of interest and related species,” says Dave. “The genes we were most interested in were ones that helped increase yield in harsh environments, particularly under drought.”

By studying the genomes of wild varieties of wheat, for example, researchers found genes that increase wheat’s tolerance of water stress.

Photo: International Potato Center (CIP)

Sweetpotato diversity.

GCP-supported projects analysed naturally occurring genetic diversity to produce cloned genes, informative markers and reference sets for 21 important food crops. ‘Reference sets’, or ‘reference collections’ reduce search time for researchers: they are representative selections of a few hundred plant samples (‘accessions’) that encapsulate each crop’s genetic diversity, narrowed down from the many thousands of gene bank accessions available. The resources developed through GCP have already proved enormously valuable, and will continue to benefit researchers for years to come.

For example, researchers developed 52 new molecular (DNA) markers for sweetpotato to enable marker-assisted selection for resistance to sweet potato virus disease (SPVD). For lentils, a reference set of about 150 accessions was produced, a distillation down to 15 percent of the global collection studied. And for barley, 90 percent of all the different characteristics of barley were captured within 300 representative plant lines.


Harvesting barley in Ethiopia.

The leader of GCP’s barley research, Michael Baum, who directs the Biodiversity and Integrated Gene Management Program at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), says the reference set is a particular boon for a researcher new to barley.

“By looking at 300 lines, they see the diversity of 3,000 lines without any duplication,” says Michael. “This is much better and quicker for a plant breeder.”

Similarly, the lentil reference set serves as a common resource for ICARDA’s team of lentil breeders, facilitating efficient collaboration, according to Aladdin Hamweih of ICARDA, who was charged with developing the lentil collection for GCP.

“These materials can be accessed to achieve farming goals – to produce tough plants suitable for local environments. In doing this, we give farmers a greater likelihood of success, which ultimately leads to improving food security for the wider population,” Aladdin says.

An important aspect of the efforts within Phase I was GCP’s emphasis on developing genomic resources such as reference sets for historically under-resourced crops that had received relatively little investment in genetic research. These made up most of GCP’s target crops, and included: bananas and plantains; cassava; coconuts; common beans; cowpeas; chickpeas; groundnuts; lentils; finger, foxtail and pearl millets; pigeonpeas; potatoes; sorghum; sweetpotatoes and yams.

Although not all of these historically under-resourced crops continued to receive research funding into Phase II, the outcomes from Phase I provided valuable genetic resources and a solid basis for the ongoing use of modern, molecular-breeding techniques. Indeed, thanks to their GCP boost, some of these previously neglected species have become model crops for genetic and genomic research – even overtaking superstar crops such as wheat, whose highly complex genome hampers scientists’ progress.

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Banana harvest for sale in Rwanda.

A need to focus and deliver products

“Phase I provided plenty of opportunity for researchers to tap into genetic diversity,” says Jean-Marcel. “We opened the door for a lot of different topics which helped us to identify projects worth pursuing further, as well as identifying productive partnerships. But at the same time, we were losing focus by spreading ourselves too thinly across so many crops.”

This notion was confirmed by the authors of an external review conducted in 2008, commissioned by CGIAR. This recommended consolidating GCP’s research in order to optimise efficiency and increase outputs during GCP’s second phase, while also enhancing potential for longer term impact.

Transparency and a willingness to respond and adapt were always core GCP values. The Programme embraced external review throughout its lifetime, and was able to make dynamic changes in direction as the best ways to achieve impact emerged. Markus Palenberg, Managing Director of the Institute for Development Strategy in Germany, was a member of the 2008 evaluation panel.

“One major recommendation from the evaluation was to focus on crops and tools which would provide the greatest impact in terms of food security,” recounts Markus, who later joined GCP’s Executive Board. “This resulted in the Programme refocusing its research on only nine core crops.” These were cassava, beans, chickpeas, cowpeas, groundnuts, maize, rice, sorghum and wheat.

Photo: Mann/ILRI

Hard work: harvesting groundnut in Malawi.

GCP’s decision-making process on how to focus its Phase II efforts was partly guided by research the Programme had commissioned, documented in its Pathways to impact brief No 1: Where in the world do we start? This took global data on the number of stunted – i.e., severely malnourished – children, as a truer indicator of poverty than a monetary definition, and overlaid it on maps showing where drought was most likely to occur and have a serious impact on crop productivity. This combination of poverty and vulnerable harvests was used to determine the farming systems where GCP might have most impact.

The Programme also attempted to maintain a balance between types of crops, including each of the following categories: cereals (maize, rice, sorghum, wheat), legumes (beans, chickpeas, cowpeas, groundnuts), and roots and tubers (cassava).

The crops were organised into six crop- specific Research Initiatives (RIs) – legumes were consolidated into one – plus a seventh, Comparative Genomics, which focused on exploiting genetic similarities among rice, maize and sorghum to find and deploy sources of tolerance to acid soils.

Photo: IRRI

Child eating rice.

The research under the RIs built on GCP’s achievements in Phase I, moving from exploration to application. The change in focus was underpinned by the planned shift from competitive to commissioned projects, allowing the Programme to continue to support its strongest partnerships and research strands.

“The RIs focused on promoting the use of modern integrated breeding approaches, using both conventional and molecular breeding methods, to improve each crop through a series of specific projects undertaken in more than 30 countries,” says Jean-Marcel. “More importantly, the RIs were focused on creating new genetic material and varieties of plants that would ultimately benefit farmers.”

Such products released on the ground included new varieties of:

  • cassava resistant to several diseases, tolerant to drought, nutritionally enhanced to provide high levels of vitamin A, and with higher starch content for high-quality cassava flour and starch processing
  • chickpea tolerant to drought and able to thrive in semi-arid conditions, already providing improved food and income security for smallholder African farmers  – yields have doubled in Ethiopia – and set to help them supply growing demand for the legume in India
  • maize with higher yields, tolerant to high levels of aluminium in acid soils, resistant to disease, adapted to local conditions in Africa – and with improved phosphorus efficiency in the pipeline
  • rice with tolerance to drought and low levels of phosphorus in acid soils, disease resistance, high grain quality, and tolerance to soil salinity – with improved aluminium tolerance on the way too
Photo: CSISA

Harvesting rice in India.

Over the coming years, many more varieties developed through GCP projects are expected to be available to farmers, as CGIAR Research Centres and national programmes continue their work.

These will include varieties of:

  • common bean resistant to disease and tolerant to drought and heat, with higher yields in drier conditions – due for release in several African countries from 2015 onwards
  • cowpea resistant to diseases and insect pests, with higher yields, and able to tolerate worsening drought – set for release in several countries from 2015, to secure and improve harvests in sub-Saharan Africa
  • groundnut tolerant to drought and resistant to pests, diseases, and the fungi that cause aflatoxin contamination, securing harvests and raising incomes in some of the poorest regions of Africa
  • maize tolerant to drought and adapted to local conditions and tastes in Asia
  • sorghum that is even more robust and adapted to increasing drought in the arid areas of sub-Saharan Africa – plus sorghum varieties able to tolerate high aluminium levels in acid soils, set for imminent release
  • wheat with heat and drought tolerance – as well as improved yield and grain quality – for India and China, the two largest wheat producers in the world
Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Groundnut harvest, Ghana.

Giving a voice to all the cast and crew

The 2008 external review also recommended slight changes in governance. It suggested GCP receive more guidance from two proposed panels: a Consortium Committee and an independent Executive Board.

Dave Hoisington, who chaired the Committee from 2010, succeeding the inaugural Chair Yves Savidan, explains: “GCP was not a research programme run by a single institute, but a consortium of 18 institutes. By having a committee of the key players in research as well as an independent board comprising people who had no conflict of interest with the Programme, we were able to make sure both the ‘players’ and ‘referees’ were given a voice.”

Jean-Marcel says providing this voice to everyone involved was an important facet of effective management. “Given that GCP was built on its people and partnerships, it was important that we restructured our governance to provide everyone with a representative to voice their thoughts on the Programme. We have always tried to be very transparent.”

The seven-member Executive Board was instated in June 2008 to provide oversight of the scientific strategy of the Programme. Board members had a wide variety of skills and backgrounds, with expertise ranging across molecular biology, development assistance, socioeconomics, academia, finance, governance and change management.

Andrew Bennett, who followed inaugural Chair Calvin Qualset into the role in 2009, has more than 45 years of experience in international development and disaster management and has worked in development programmes in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Pacific and the Caribbean.

“The Executive Board’s first role was to provide advice and to help the Consortium Committee and management refocus the Programme,” says Andrew.

Photo: IRRI

Rice seed diversity.

‘Advice’ and ‘helping’ are not usually words associated with how a Board works but, like so much of GCP’s ‘family’, this was not a typical board. Because GCP was hosted by CIMMYT, the Board did not have to deal with any policy issues; that was the responsibility of the Consortium Committee. As Andrew explains, “Our role was to advise on and help with decision-making and implementation, which was great as we were able to focus on the Programme’s science and people.”

Andrew has been impressed by what GCP has been able to achieve in its relatively short lifespan in comparison with other research programmes. “I think this programme has demonstrated that a relatively modest amount of money used intelligently can move with the times and help identify areas of potential benefit.”

Developing capacity and leadership in Africa

As GCP’s focus shifted from exploration and discovery to application and impact between Phases I and II, project leadership shifted too. More and more projects were being led by developing-country partners.

Harold Roy-Macauley, GCP Board member and Executive Director of the West and Central African Council for Agricultural Research and Development (WECARD), advised GCP about how to develop capacity, community and leadership among African partners so that products would reach farmers.

“The objective was to make sure that we were influencing development within local research communities,” says Harold. “GCP has played a very important role in creating synergies between the different institutions in Africa. Bringing the right people together, who are working on similar problems, and providing them with the opportunity to lead, has brought about change in the way researchers are doing research.”

In the early years of the Programme, only about 25 percent of the research budget was allocated to research institutes in developing countries; this figure was more than 50 percent in 2012 and 2013.

Jean-Marcel echoes Harold’s comments: “To make a difference in rural development – to truly contribute to improved food security through crop improvement and incomes for poor farmers – we knew that building capacity had to be a cornerstone of our strategy,” he says. Throughout its 10 years, GCP invested 15 percent of its resources in developing capacity.

“Providing this capacity has enabled people, research teams and institutes to grow, thrive and stand on their own, and this is deeply gratifying. It is very rewarding to see people from developing countries growing and becoming leaders,” says Jean-Marcel.

“For me, seeing developing-country partners come to the fore and take the reins of project leadership was one of the major outcomes of the Programme. Providing them with the opportunity, along with the appropriate capacity, allowed them to build their self-confidence. Now, many have become leaders of other transnational projects.”

Emmanuel Okogbenin and Chiedozie Egesi, two plant breeders at Nigeria’s National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), are notable examples. They are leading an innovative new project using marker-assisted breeding techniques they learnt during GCP projects to develop higher-yielding, stress-tolerant cassava varieties. For this project, they are partnering with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Cornell University in the USA, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and Uganda’s National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI).

Chiedozie says this would not have been possible without GCP helping African researchers to build their profiles. “GCP helped us to build an image for ourselves in Nigeria and in Africa,” he says, “and this created a confidence in other global actors, who, on seeing our ability to deliver results, are choosing to invest in us.”

Photo: IITA

Nigerian cassava farmer.

A ‘sweet and sour’ sunset

Photo: Daryl Marquardt/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Maize at sunset.

Jean-Marcel defined GCP’s final General Research Meeting in Thailand in 2014 as a ‘sweet-and-sour experience’.

Summing up the meeting, Jean-Marcel said, “It was sour in terms of GCP’s sunset, and sweet in terms of seeing you all here, sharing your stories and continuing your conversations with your partners and communities.”

From the outset, GCP was set up as a time-bound programme, which gave partners specific time limits and goals, and the motivation to deliver products. However, much of the research begun during GCP projects will take longer than 10 years to come to full fruition, so it was important for GCP to ensure that the research effort could be sustained and would continue to deliver farmer-focused outcomes.

During the final two years of the Programme, the Executive Board, Consortium Committee and Management Team played a large role in ensuring this sustainability through a thoroughly planned handover.

“We knew we weren’t going to be around forever, so we had a plan from early on to hand over the managerial reins to other institutes, including CGIAR Research Programs,” says Jean-Marcel.

One of the largest challenges was to ensure the continuity and future success of the Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP). IBP is a web-based, one-stop shop for information, tools and related services to support crop breeders in designing and carrying out integrated breeding projects, including both conventional and marker-assisted breeding methods.

While there are already a number of other analytical and data management breeding systems on the market, IBP combines all the tools that a breeder needs to carry out their day-to-day logistics, plan crosses and trials, manage and analyse data, and analyse and refine breeding decisions. IBP is also unique in that it is geared towards supporting breeders in developing countries – although it is already proving valuable to a wide range of breeding teams across the world. The Platform is set up to grow and improve as innovative ideas emerge, as users can develop and share their own tools.

Beyond the communities and relationships fostered by GCP community, Jean-Marcel sees IBP as the most important legacy of the Programme. “I think that the impact of IBP will be huge – so much larger than GCP. It will really have impact on how people do their business, and adopt best practice.”

While the sun is setting on GCP, it is rising for IBP, which is in an exciting phases as it grows and seeks long-term financial stability. The Platform is now independent, with its headquarters hosted at CIMMYT, and has established a number of regional hubs to provide localised support and training around the world, with more to follow.

It is envisaged that IBP will be invaluable to researchers in both developing and developed countries for many years to come, helping them to get farmers the crop varieties they need more efficiently. IBP is also helping to sustain some of the networks that GCP built and nurtured, as it is hosting the crop-specific Communities of Practice established by GCP.

2014 may be the end of GCP’s story but its legacy will live on. It will endure, of course, in the Programme’s scientific achievements – for many crops, genetic research and the effective use of genetic diversity in molecular breeding are just beginning, and GCP has helped to kick-start a long and productive scientific journey – and in the valuable tools brought together in IBP. And most of all, GCP’s character, communities and spirit will live on in all those who formed part of the GCP family.

For Chiedozie Egesi, the partnerships fostered by GCP have changed the way he does research: “We now have a network of cassava breeders that you can count on and relate with in different countries. This has really widened our horizons.

Fellow cassava breeder Elizabeth Parkes of Ghana agrees that GCP’s impact will be a lasting one: “All the agricultural research institutes and individual scientists who came into contact with GCP have been fundamentally transformed.”

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Photo: E Hermanowicz/Bioversity International

Cowpea seeds dried in their pods.

Oct 272015


Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

GCP sowed the seeds of a genetic resources revolution.

“In the last 10 years we have had a revolution in terms of developing the genetic resources of crops.”

So says Pooran Gaur, Principal Scientist for chickpea genetics and breeding at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), and Product Delivery Coordinator for chickpeas for the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP).

He attributes this revolution in large part to GCP, saying it “played the role of catalyst. It got things started. It set the foundation. Now we are in a position to do further molecular breeding in chickpeas.”

Led by Pooran, researchers from India, Ethiopia and Kenya worked together not only to develop improved, drought-tolerant chickpeas that would thrive in semiarid conditions, but also to ensure these varieties would be growing in farmers’ fields across Africa within a decade.

The 10-year Generation Challenge Programme, with the goal of improving food security in developing countries, aimed to leave plant genetic assets as an important part of its legacy.

Diagnostic, or informative, molecular markers – which act like ‘tags’ for beneficial genes scientists are looking for – are an increasingly important genetic tool for breeders in developing resilient, improved varieties, and have been a key aspect of GCP’s research.


Chickpeas, ready to harvest.

What is a diagnostic molecular marker?

Developments in plant genetics over the past 10–15 years have provided breeders with powerful tools to detect beneficial traits of plants much more quickly than ever before.

Scientists can identify individual genes and explore which ones are responsible for, or contribute to, valuable characteristics such as tolerance to drought or poor soils, or resistance to pests or diseases.

Once a favourable gene for a target agronomic trait is discovered and located in the plant’s genome, the next step is to find a molecular marker that will effectively tag it. A molecular marker is simply a variation in the plant’s DNA sequence that can be detected by scientists using any of a range of methods. When one of these genetic variants is found close on the genome to a gene of interest (or even within the gene itself), it can be used to indicate the gene’s presence.

To use an analogy, think of a story as the plant’s genome: its words are the plant’s genes, and a molecular marker works like a text highlighter. Molecular markers are not precise enough to highlight specific words (genes), but they can highlight sentences (genomic regions) that contain these words, making it easier and quicker to identify whether or not they are present.

Once a marker is found to be associated with a gene, or multiple genes, and determined to be significant to a target trait, it is designated an informative marker, diagnostic marker or predictive marker. Some simple traits such as flower colour are controlled by one gene, but more complex traits such as drought tolerance are controlled by multiple genes. Diagnostic markers enable plant breeders to practise molecular breeding.

Breeders use markers to predict plant traits

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Hard work: a Ugandan bean farmer’s jembe, or hoe.

In the process known as marker-assisted selection, plant breeders use diagnostic molecular markers early in the breeding process to determine whether plants they are developing will have the desired qualities. By testing only a small amount of seed or seedling tissue, breeders are able to choose the best parent plants for crossing, and easily see which of the progeny have inherited useful genes. This considerably shortens the time it takes to develop new crop varieties.

“We use diagnostic markers to check for favourable genes in plants under selection. If the genes are present, we grow the seed or plant and observe how the genes are expressed as plant characteristics in the field [phenotyping]; if the genes are not present, we throw the seed or plant away,” explains Steve Beebe, a leading bean breeder with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and GCP’s Product Delivery Coordinator for beans.

“This saves us resources and time, as instead of a growing few thousand plants to maturity, most of which would not possess the gene, by using markers to make our selection we need to grow and phenotype only a few hundred plants which we know have the desired genes.”

GCP supported 25 projects to discover and develop markers for genes that control traits that enable key crops, including bean and chickpea, to tolerate drought and poor soils and resist pests and diseases.

Genomic resources, including genetic maps and genotyping datasets, were developed during GCP’s first phase (2004–2008) and were then used in molecular-breeding projects during the second five years of the Programme (2009–2014).

“GCP’s philosophy was that we have, in breeding programmes, genomic resources that can be utilised. Now we are well placed, and we should be able to continue even after GCP with our molecular-breeding programme,” says Pooran.

Photo: IRRI

A small selection of the rice diversity in the International Rice Research Institute gene bank – raw material for the creation of genomic resources.

Markers developed for drought tolerance

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Cracked earth.

With climate change making droughts more frequent and severe, breeding for drought tolerance was a key priority for GCP from its inception.

Different plants may use similar strategies to tolerate drought, for example, having longer roots or reducing water loss from leaves. But drought tolerance is a complex trait to breed, as in each crop a large number of genes are involved.

Wheat, for example, has many traits – each controlled by different genes – that allow the crop to tolerate extreme temperature and/or lack of moisture. Identifying drought tolerance in wheat is therefore a search for many genes. In the particular case of wheat, this search is compounded by its genetic make-up, which is one of the most complex in the plant kingdom.

The difficulty of identifying genes that play a significant role in drought tolerance makes it all the more impressive when researchers successfully collaborate to overcome these challenges. GCP-supported scientists were able to develop and use diagnostic markers in chickpea, rice, sorghum and wheat to breed for drought tolerance. The first new drought-tolerant varieties bred using marker-assisted selection have already been released to farmers in Africa and Asia and are making significant contributions to food and income security.


Tanzanian sorghum farmer.

Markers developed for pests and diseases

Photo: IITA

A bumper harvest of cassava roots at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria.

Cassava mosaic disease (CMD) is the biggest threat to cassava production in Africa – where more cassava is grown and eaten than any other crop. A principal source of CMD resistance is CMD2, a dominant gene that confers high levels of resistance.

Nigerian GCP-supported researchers worked on identifying and validating diagnostic markers that are associated with CMD2. These markers are being used in marker-assisted selection work to transfer CMD resistance to locally-adapted, farmer-preferred varieties.

In the common bean, GCP-supported researchers identified genes for resistance to pests such as bean stem maggot in Ethiopia, as well as diseases such as the common mosaic necrosis potyvirus and common bacterial blight, which reduce bean quality and yields and in some cases means total crop losses.

Markers developed for acidic and saline soils

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Sifting rice in Nepal.

Aluminium toxicity and phosphorus deficiency, caused by imbalanced nutrient availability in acid soils, are major factors in inhibiting crop productivity throughout the world. Aluminium toxicity also exacerbates the effects of drought by inhibiting root growth.

Diagnostic markers for genes that confer tolerance to high levels of aluminium and improve phosphorus uptake were identified in sorghum, maize and rice. The markers linked to these two sets of similar major genes have been used efficiently in breeding programmes in Africa and Asia.

Salt stress is also a major constraint across many rice-producing areas, partly because modern rice varieties are highly sensitive to salinity. Farmers in salt-affected areas have therefore continued growing their traditional crop varieties, which are more resilient but give low yields with poor grain quality. To address this issue, GCP supported work to develop and use markers to develop popular Bangladeshi varieties with higher tolerance to salt. GCP also funded several PhD students working in this area, one of whom was Armin Bhuiya.

Markers mean information, which means power

Diagnostic molecular markers are, in their most essential form, data. That means they are easily stored and maintained as data in publicly accessible databases and publications. Breeders can now access the molecular markers developed for various crops through the Integrated Breeding Platform – a web-based one-stop shop for integrated breeding information (including genetic resources), tools and support, which was established by GCP and is now continuing independently following GCP’s close – in order to design and carry out breeding projects.

“We could not have done that much in developing genomic resources without GCP support,” says Pooran. “Now the breeding products are coming; the markers are strengthening our work; and you will see in the next five to six years more products coming from molecular breeding.

“For me, GCP has improved the efficiency of the breeding programme – that is the biggest advantage.”

More links

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Beans on sale in Uganda.

Oct 192015



Precious sorghum seed diversity.

Humans are a protective species. We like to hoard away our precious items in vaults and safes made of concrete and steel, safe from thieves and catastrophes.

One not-so-obvious precious item, which many people take for granted, is seed. Without seeds, farmers would not be able to grow the grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits we eat.

For centuries, farmers have harvested seeds to store and protect for planting the following year. Most of the time, farmers will only keep seeds harvested from plants that have excelled in their environment – that have produced high yields or have favourable qualities such as larger or tastier grain. This simple iterative process of selecting primarily for high yields means that many crops today are closely related genetically, which can make them more vulnerable to evolving diseases and pests.

Without diversity, a severe epidemic can completely wipe out a farmer’s crop — and even a whole region’s crop. One of the best-known historical examples of just such a disastrous crop failure is the Irish Potato Famine of the 19th century, when potato blight disease caused extensive death, human suffering and social upheaval. A number of crops around the world are in similar danger today, including wheat, threatened by the Ug99 strain of stem rust disease, to which almost all the world’s wheat is susceptible, and cassava, menaced by African cassava mosaic virus (ACMV).

The solution – genetic diversity

Plant breeders are looking at ways to increase diversity among cultivated crops, mitigating the risks of pests and diseases and introducing genes that help plants thrive in their local environments. To do this they are looking for useful traits in traditional cultivars, related species and wild ancestors. Such traits may include tolerance to drought, heat, and poor soils as well as insect and disease resistance. Breeders cross these donor parents with high-yielding elite breeding lines. The resulting new varieties have all the preferred traits of their parents and none of the deficiencies.

The genetic diversity of crops and their wild relatives is held by gene banks. There are thousands of gene banks worldwide, which collect and store seeds from hundreds of thousands of varieties. Breeders and researchers submit seed and tissue of wild and cultivated varieties as well as of lines of new varieties they are trying to breed.

Photo: IRRI

Staff hard at work in the medium-term storage room of the International Rice Genebank at IRRI.

“For years, gene banks were primarily repositories, but with genetics evolving, and its subsequent application in plant breeding growing over the past 10 years, breeders and geneticists are now mining gene banks for wild and exotic species that might have favourable genes for desired traits,” explains Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, evolutionary biologist and head of the International Rice Genebank maintained by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at its headquarters in The Philippines.

Sifting through all these gene-bank collections for plants with desired traits is challenging for breeders, even for traits that are easy to select for through visual screening. For example, Ruaraidh says the rice collection held at the International Rice Genebank contains more than 117,000 different types of rice, or accessions.

In recognition of this challenge, the initial rationale of the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme’s (GCP) genetic stocks activity was to make the diversity in gene banks more easily accessible and practical for the study – and application – of genetic diversity.

What is a genetic stock? “A genetic stock is a line that has been created by modern breeders and researchers, using conventional technologies, specifically to address some specified scientific purpose, typically for gene discovery,” explains Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, evolutionary biologist and head of the International Rice Genebank maintained by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). This definition includes the notion of perpetuation (a ‘line’), which is central to genetic stocks: either the materials are genetically stabilised through sexual reproduction, or they can be distributed through vegetative propagation.

Taking stock of genetic stocks

The first step towards making diversity accessible to breeders was to develop reference sets, representing as much genetic diversity as possible within a small proportion of gene bank accessions, selected through pedigree and molecular marker information.

“Reference sets reduce the number of choices that breeders have to search through, from thousands down to a few hundred,” says Jean Christophe Glaszmann, a plant geneticist at France’s Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement (CIRAD; Agricultural Research for Development), who held a managing role at GCP between 2004 and 2010, overseeing much of the reference-set work as GCP’s Subprogramme Leader on Genetic Diversity during GCP’s Phase I.

“A reference set represents the whole diversity found in the collections. Breeders can then use this sample to make crosses with their preferred varieties to try and integrate specific genes from the reference-set lines into those varieties.”

During the first phase of GCP (2004–2008), the Programme focused on identifying and characterising reference sets, each of roughly 300 lines, for banana, barley, cassava, chickpea, coconut, common bean, cowpea, faba bean, finger millet, foxtail millet, groundnut, lentil, maize, pearl millet, pigeonpea, potato, rice, sorghum, sweetpotato, wheat and yam. For most crops phenotyping data – information about physical plant traits – were also being made available for the reference sets, helping researchers to select material of interest for breeding.

Photo: P Kosina/CIMMYT

A trainee at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) shows off diverse wheat ears, a small sample of the thousands of different lines found in the centre’s gene bank.

A further aspect of the work was the development of data-kits, which included molecular markers used to genotype and verify the sets. These kits allow plant scientists to assess and compare the diversity of their own collections with that of the reference sets, thus facilitating the introduction of new diversity in their prebreeding programmes.

Jean Christophe says the reference sets and data-kits were pivotal to the success of GCP’s molecular-breeding projects as they allowed researchers in different institutes to simultaneously work on the same genetic materials. “The sets served as consistent reference material that everybody collaborating on the project could analyse,” he explains. “Some of these collaborations involved hundreds of researchers, particularly those projects seeking to map genomes and identify genes.”

During the second phase of GCP (2009–2014), the reference sets for GCP’s Phase II target crops (cassava, chickpea, common bean, cowpea, groundnut, maize, rice, sorghum and wheat) were thoroughly phenotyped under different environments, including biotic and abiotic stresses. Jean Christophe says this work helped to identify new alleles (alternative forms of a gene or genetic locus) associated with desired traits that could be used for breeding purposes. Reference sets have been used successfully to identify and use new plant material in breeding programmes to improve various traits, particularly disease resistance and even more complex traits such as drought tolerance in cassava, chickpea, cowpea, maize, sorghum and wheat.

Broadening groundnut’s genetic base to prevent disease

Photo: V Meadu/CCAFS

A farmer in Senegal shows off her groundnut crop, almost ripe for harvest.

Another objective of GCP’s genetic stocks activity was to create new diversity within domesticated cultivated crops that have narrow genetic diversity, such as groundnut.

“The groundnuts we grow today are not too dissimilar to the ones that were first created naturally five to six thousand years ago,” says David Bertioli, a plant geneticist at the University of Brasília, Brazil. “This means that they are genetically very similar and have a narrow genetic base – the narrowest of any cultivated crop.”

This genetic similarity means that all cultivated groundnuts are very susceptible to diseases, particularly leaf spot, requiring expensive agrochemicals, especially fungicides. Without agrochemicals, which smallholder farmers in Africa and Asia often cannot afford, yields can be very low.

David says groundnut breeders always recognised the need to increase diversity, but because cultivated groundnuts have had a narrow base for so long, they became radically different from their wild relatives, making it very difficult to successfully cross wild species with cultivated species.

New genetic diversity is created through recombination, that is, through crossing contrasting varieties to create novel lines. Researchers can study these recombinants to identify genes associated with desired traits or use them in further crosses to develop new varieties.

“One of our first jobs was to make wild-species recombinants to trace out the relatedness of the wild-species genomes,” says David. “Once we could see the relatedness, we could see which wild species we could cross with cultivated lines. We had to do a lot of these crosses, but we eventually started to broaden the genetic diversity of the cultivated lines.”

David says this painstaking work, carried out under GCP, also formed the platform for sequencing the groundnut genome for the first time.

“That gave us an even greater understanding of the genetic structure, which is laying the groundwork for new varieties with traits such as added disease resistance and drought tolerance,” says David.

An additional key outcome of the groundnut aspect of the Legumes Research Initiative was developing ‘wild × domesticated’ synthetic lines, which are being crossed with domesticated groundnut varieties in Malawi, Niger, Senegal and Tanzania to introduce higher drought tolerance.

Photo: C Schubert/CCAFS

Like many areas of Africa struck by climate change, this village in Tanzania is suffering the effects of drought, with temperature increases and increasingly unpredictable rainfall.

Genetic gain by exploiting genetic stocks

The genetic stocks activity has generated a large and diverse array of resources across GCP’s target crops, not just for groundnut.

Recombinant inbred lines (RILs) incorporating specific traits of interest – particularly drought tolerance – have been developed for cowpea, maize, rice, sorghum and wheat. RILs are stabilised genetic stocks, created over several years by crossing two inbred lines followed by repeated generations of sibling mating to produce inbred lines that are genetically identical. These can then be used to discover and verify the role of particular genes and groups of genes associated with desired traits.

Near-isogenic lines (NILs) are RILs that possess identical genetic codes, except for differences at a few specific genetic loci. This enables researchers to evaluate particular genes and groups of genes that they may want to incorporate into breeding lines, particularly genes that have come from plants that otherwise do not perform well agronomically, such as wild relatives or older varieties. Sorghum NILs incorporating the AltSB locus for aluminium tolerance are being tested in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger on problematic acid soils.

Multiparent advanced generation intercross (MAGIC) populations are a form of recombinants developed from crossing several parental lines from different genetic origins and, in some cases, exotic backgrounds to maximise the mix of genes from the parental lines in the offspring. MAGIC populations have been developed for chickpea, cowpea, rice and sorghum, and are being developed for common bean. Selected parental lines have been used to combine elite alleles for simple traits such as aluminium tolerance in sorghum and submergence tolerance in rice, as well as for complex traits such as drought or heat tolerance.

The further evaluation and use of the genetic stocks stemming from GCP-supported projects, as well as the generation of new genetic stocks, will continue beyond GCP through CGIAR’s Research Programs as well as through those institutes and national breeding programmes associated with GCP. There will be a continuing and evolving need to identify new genes associated with desired traits to improve cultivated germplasm.

Photo: K Zaw/Bioversity International

Transplanting rice plants in Myanmar.

Sustaining genetic stocks into the future

Sustainability of genetic stocks has always been an issue, as stocks are generally not managed in a centralised way but are left under the direct responsibility of the scientists who developed them. These resources have therefore usually been handled in a highly ad hoc manner.

Because of high staff turnover in CGIAR Centers and breeding programmes in developing countries, and also because their management is neither centralised nor coordinated, these resources are also often lost as staff move from one organisation to another.

Although different genetic resources require different management protocols and storage timelines, the idea that gene bank curators take on the management of genetic stocks was proposed several years ago. For Centers such as IRRI, this is already a reality – for at least some of the genetic resources developed.

However, with the growing popularity of tapping into the rich diversity in gene banks that GCP’s genetic stocks activity has helped drive, gene bank supervisors such as Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton are concerned about how genetic stocks will be sustained.

“The more popular molecular breeding and genetic stock become, the more funds we need to help us curate and disseminate them,” says Ruaraidh. He proposes to recover costs for managing genetic resources through a chargeback system on a two-tier scale, with non-profit organisations receiving stock at lower costs than commercial organisations. “Such a system would be sustainable and reduce the burden on gene bank institutes,” he says.

Still, the costs are of concern to institutes, particularly CGIAR Centers, which maintain most of the world’s plant crop gene banks.

CGIAR, a global partnership that unites 15 research Centres, including IRRI, is engaged in research for a food-secure future. CGIAR also created GCP. “CGIAR’s main priority is to conserve genetic resources for all humankind,” says Dave Hoisington, Senior Research Scientist and Program Director at the University of Georgia in the US. He was formerly Director of Research at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and Director of the Genetic Resources Program and of the Applied Biotechnology Center at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) (both CGIAR Centers) and Chair of the GCP Consortium Committee.

“In both of the CGIAR Centers I worked in,” says Dave, “we always maintained the position that if the Center were to shut down, the last thing we’d do would be to turn out the lights of the gene bank. Even when we had funding cuts, we would never cut the budget for the gene bank.”

Photo: X Fonseca/CIMMYT

At work in the maize active collection in the gene bank at CIMMYT, which keeps maize and wheat diversity in trust for the world.

New programme to fund crop diversity

To alleviate some of the funding burden on CGIAR Centers and free up more money to use in research and development, CGIAR created a new CGIAR Research Program for Managing and Sustaining Crop Collections. The comprehensive five-year programme is managed by the Crop Trust (formerly Global Crop Diversity Trust).

“The Trust is a financial mechanism to raise an endowment, to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity,” says Charlotte Lusty, Genebank Programmes Coordinator at the Global Crop Diversity Trust. “The new programme is an extension of the Trust’s work. We aim to raise a USD 500 million endowment by 2016. The interest from this will be divided between the CGIAR Centers to cover all their long-term conservation operations.”

The new programme is also reviewing how gene banks within CGIAR are being managed, with a view to developing a quality management system, which it hopes will make gene banks run more efficiently. Charlotte says it is also encouraging stronger gene banks, such as IRRI and CIMMYT, to lend their expertise and experience to smaller gene banks so they can meet and build on their management quality.

Dave Hoisington believes that the new programme will provide CGIAR’s gene banks with greater capacity and make them even more attractive for researchers wanting to make use of their rich diversity.

Photo: IRRI

A wide diversity of rice seed from the collection of the International Rice Genebank at IRRI.

Looking forward 30 years

Tapping into new diversity was really at the heart of GCP, and was a major, if not the primary, rationale for its establishment. Over its 10-year lifespan, has invested almost USD 28 million, or 18 percent of its budget, in developing genetic stocks, both reference sets and recombinants, for over 20 different crops.

Although these products don’t directly benefit farmers, they do indirectly help by significantly increasing breeding efficiency.

“All this research is fairly new and I am amazed, as a geneticist and plant breeder, by how far we’ve come since GCP started in 2004,” says David Bertioli.

“What we’ve been able to do in groundnut – that is, broaden the genetic base – hasn’t occurred naturally or through conventional breeding for thousands of years. And we’ve been able to do it in less than ten years.”

David recognises that the true value of the research will only be realised when new disease-resistant varieties are available for farmers to grow, which may be in five to seven years. “Only then will we be able to look back and consider the worth of all the hard work and cooperation that went into developing these precious varieties.”

GCP’s genetic stock activities have generated a large and diverse array of resources. These resources lay the foundation for further genetic stock development and will aid in researchers’ quests to tap into genetic diversity well into the future.

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Oct 162015
Photo: A Paul-Bossuet/ICRISAT

Pigeonpea farmers in India.

The tagline of the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP) is ‘Partnerships in modern crop breeding for food security’. One of GCP’s many rewarding partnerships was with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

The Institute was a source of valuable partnerships with highly regarded agricultural scientists and researchers, as well as of germplasm and genetic resources from its gene bank. With assistance from GCP, these resources have enabled scientists and crop breeders throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America to achieve crop improvements for chickpea, groundnut, pearl millet, pigeonpea and sorghum, all of which are staple crops that millions of people depend upon for survival.

“The philosophy of GCP at the start was to tap into and use the genomic recourses we had in our gene banks to develop ICRISAT’s and our partners’ breeding programmes,” says Pooran Gaur, GCP’s Product Delivery Coordinator for chickpeas, and Principal Scientist for chickpea genetics and breeding at ICRISAT.

ICRISAT’s gene bank is a global repository of crop genetic diversity. It contains 123,023 germplasm accessions – in the form of seed samples – assembled from 144 countries, making it one of the largest gene banks in the world.

The collection serves as insurance against genetic loss and as a source of resistance to diseases and pests, tolerance to climatic and other environmental stresses, and improved quality and yield traits for crop breeding.

Pooran says the ultimate goal of the GCP–ICRISAT partnership was to use the resources in the gene bank to develop drought-tolerant varieties that would thrive in semi-arid conditions and to make these varieties available to farmers’ fields within a decade.

Photo: S Kilungu/CCAFS

Harvesting sorghum in Kenya.

Setting a foundation for higher yielding, drought-tolerant chickpeas

Pooran was involved with GCP from its beginning in 2004 and was instrumental in coordinating chickpea projects.


Chickpea harvest, India.

“GCP got things started; it set a foundation for using genomic resources to breed chickpeas,” says Pooran. During Phase I of GCP (2004–2009), ICRISAT was involved in developing reference sets for chickpeas and developing mapping populations for drought-tolerance traits. It also collaborated with 19 other international research organisations to successfully sequence the chickpea genome in 2013 – a major breakthrough that paved the way for the development of even more superior chickpea varieties to transform production in semi-arid environments.

The International Chickpea Genome Sequencing Consortium, led by ICRISAT and partly funded by GCP, identified more than 28,000 genes and several million genetic markers. Pooran says these are expected to illuminate important genetic traits that may enhance new varieties.

The trait of most interest to many chickpea breeders is drought tolerance. In recent years, droughts in the south of India, the largest producer of chickpeas, have reduced yields to less than one tonne per hectare. Droughts have also diminished chickpea yields in Ethiopia and Kenya, Africa’s largest chickpea producers and exporters to India. While total global production of chickpeas is around 8.6 million tonnes per year, drought causes losses of around 3.7 million tonnes worldwide.


Putting it to the test: Rajeev Varshney (left, see below) and Pooran Gaur (right) inspecting a chickpea field trial.

Pooran says the foundation work supported by GCP was particularly important for identifying drought-tolerance traits. “We had identified plants with early maturing traits. This allowed us to develop chickpea varieties that have more chance of escaping drought when cereal farmers produce a fast-growing crop in between the harvest and planting of their main crops,” he says.

New varieties that grow and develop more quickly are expected to play a key role in expanding the area suitable for chickpeas into new niches where the available crop-growing seasons are shorter.

“In southern India now we are already seeing these varieties growing well, and their yield is very high,” says Pooran. “In fact, productivity has increased in the south by about seven to eight times in the last 10–12 years.”

Developing capacity by involving partners in Kenya and Ethiopia

Photo: GCP

Monitoring the water use of chickpea plants in experiments at Egerton University, Njoro, Kenya.

As part of GCP’s Tropical Legumes I project (TLI), incorporated within its Legume Research Initiative (RI), ICRISAT partnered with Egerton University in Kenya and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) to share breeding skills and resources to produce higher yielding, drought-tolerant chickpea varieties.

“When we first started working on this project in mid-2007, our breeding programme was very weak,” says Paul Kimurto of the Faculty of Agriculture at Egerton University, who was Lead Scientist for chickpea research in the TLI project. “We have since accumulated a lot of germplasm, a chickpea reference set and a mapping population, all of which have greatly boosted our breeding programme.”

Paul says that with this increased capacity, his team in Kenya had released six new varieties of chickpea in the five years prior to GCP’s close at the end of 2014, and were expecting more to be ready within in the next three years.

In fields across Ethiopia, meanwhile, the introduction of new varieties has already brought a dramatic increase in productivity, with yields doubling in recent years, according to Asnake Fikre, Crop Research Directorate Director for EIAR.

Varieties like the large-seeded and high-valued kabuli have presented new opportunities for farmers to earn extra income through the export industry, and indeed chickpea exports from eastern Africa have substantially increased since 2001. This has transformed Ethiopia’s chickpeas from simple subsistence crop to one of great commercial significance.

Photo: S Sridharan/ICRISAT

This chickpea seller in Ethiopia says that kabuli varieties are becoming more popular.

Decoding pigeonpea genome

Two years prior to the decoding of the chickpea genome, GCP’s Director Jean-Marcel Ribaut announced that a six-year, GCP-funded collaboration led by ICRISAT had already sequenced almost three-quarters of the pigeonpea genome.

“This will have significant impact on resource-poor communities in the semi-arid regions, because they will have the opportunity to improve their livelihoods and increase food availability,” Jean-Marcel stated in January 2012.

Pigeonpea, the grains of which make a highly nutritious and protein-rich food, is a hardy and drought-tolerant crop. It is grown in the semi-arid tropics and subtropics of Asia, Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean. This crop’s prolific seed production and tolerance to drought help reduce farmers’ vulnerability to potential food shortages during dry periods.

Photo: B Sreeram/ICRISAT

A pigeonpea farmer in his field in India.

The collaborative project brought together 12 participating institutes operating under the umbrella of the International Initiative for Pigeonpea Genomics. The initiative was led by Rajeev K Varshney, GCP’s Genomics Theme Leader and Director of the Center of Excellence in Genomics at ICRISAT. Other participants included BGI in Shenzhen, China; four universities; and five other advanced research entities, both private and public. The Plant Genome Research Program of the National Science Foundation, USA, also funded part of this research.

“We were able to assemble over 70 percent of the genome. This was sufficient to enable us to change breeding approaches for pigeonpea,” says Rajeev. “That is, we can now combine conventional and molecular breeding methods – something we couldn’t do as well before – and access enough genes to create many new pigeonpea varieties that will effectively help improve the food security and livelihoods of resource-poor communities.”

Pigeonpea breeders are now able to use markers for genetic mapping and trait identification, marker-assisted selection, marker-assisted recurrent selection and genomic selection. These techniques, Rajeev says, “considerably cut breeding time by doing away with several cropping cycles. This means new varieties reach dryland areas of Africa and Asia more quickly, thus improving and increasing the sustainability of food production systems in these regions.”

Several genes, unique to pigeonpea, were also identified for drought tolerance by the project. Future research may find ways of transferring these genes to other legumes in the same family – such as soybean, cowpea and common bean – helping these crops also become more drought tolerant. This would be a significant asset in view of the increasingly drier climates in these crops’ production areas.

“We cannot help but agree with William Dar, Director General of ICRISAT, who observed that the ‘mapping of the pigeonpea genome is a breakthrough that could not have come at a better time’,” says Jean-Marcel.


East African farmers inspect pigeonpea at flowering time.

Securing income-generating groundnut crops in Africa

Groundnut, otherwise known as peanut, is one of ICRISAT’s mandate crops. Groundnuts provide a key source of nutrition for Africa’s farming families and have the potential to sustain a strong African export industry in future.

“The groundnut is one of the most important income-generating crops for my country and other countries in East Africa,” says Patrick Okori, who is a groundnut breeder and Principal Scientist with ICRISAT in Malawi and who was GCP’s Product Delivery Coordinator for groundnuts.

“It’s like a small bank for many smallholder farmers, one that can be easily converted into cash, fetching the highest prices,” he says

It is the same in West Africa, according to groundnut breeder Issa Faye from the Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles (ISRA), who has been involved in GCP since 2008. “It’s very important for Senegal,” he says. “It’s the most important cash crop here – a big source of revenue for farmers around the country. Senegal is one of the largest exporters of groundnut in West Africa.”

In April 2014, the genomes of the groundnut’s two wild ancestral parents were successfully sequenced by the International Peanut Genome Initiative – a multinational group of crop geneticists, including those from ICRISAT, who had been working in collaboration for several years.

The sequencing work has given breeders access to 96 percent of all groundnut genes and provided the molecular map needed to breed drought-tolerant and disease-resistant higher yielding varieties, faster.

Photo: S Sridharan/ICRISAT

Drying groundnut harvest, Mozambique.

“The wild relatives of a number of crops contain genetic stocks that hold the most promise to overcome drought and disease,” says Vincent Vadez, ICRISAT Principal Scientist and groundnut research leader for GCP’s Legumes Research Initiative. And for groundnut, these stocks have already had a major impact in generating the genetic tools that are key to making more rapid and efficient progress in crop science

Chair of GCP’s Consortium Committee, David Hoisington – formerly ICRISAT’s Director of Research and now Senior Research Scientist and Program Director at the University of Georgia – says the sequencing could be a huge step forward for boosting agriculture in developing countries.

“Researchers and plant breeders now have much better tools available to breed more productive and more resilient groundnut varieties, with improved yields and better nutrition,” he says.

These resilient varieties should be available to farmers across Africa within a few years.

Supporting key crops in West Africa

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Harvested pearl millet and sorghum in Ghana.

With a focus on the semi-arid tropics, ICRISAT has been working closely with partners for 30 years to improve rainfed farming systems in West Africa. One sorghum researcher who has been working on the ground with local partners in Mali since 1998 is Eva Weltzien-Rattunde. She is an ICRISAT Principal Scientist in sorghum breeding and genetic resources, based in Mali, and was Principal Investigator for GCP’s Sorghum Research Initiative.

Eva and her team collaborated with local researchers at Mali’s Institut d’Economie Rurale (IER) and France’s Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement (CIRAD; Agricultural Research for Development) on a project to test a novel molecular-breeding approach: backcross nested association mapping (BCNAM). Eva says this method has the potential to halve the time it takes to develop local sorghum varieties with improved yield and adaptability to poor soil fertility conditions.

In another project, under GCP’s Comparative Genomics Research Initiative, Eva and her team are using molecular markers developed through the RI to select for aluminium-tolerant and phosphorus-efficient varieties and validating their performance in field trials across 29 environments in three countries in West Africa.

“Low phosphorus availability is a key problem for farmers on the coast of West Africa, and breeding phosphorus-efficient crops to cope with these conditions has been a main objective of ICRISAT in West Africa for some time,” says Eva.

“We’ve had good results in terms of field trials. We have at least 20 lines we are field testing at the moment, which we selected from 1,100 lines that we tested under high and low phosphorous conditions.” Eva says that some of these lines could be released as new varieties as early as 2015.

Ibrahima Sissoko, a data curator working with Eva’s team at ICRISAT in Mali, also adds that the collaborations and involvement with GCP have increased his and other developing country partners’ capacity in data management and statistical analysis, as well as helping to expand their network. “I can get help from other members of my sorghum community,” he says.

In summing up, Eva says: “Overall, we feel the GCP partnerships are enhancing our capacity here in Mali, and that we are closer to delivering more robust sorghum varieties that will help farmers and feed the ever-growing population in West Africa.”

Photo: A Paul-Bossuet/ICRISAT

Enjoying a tasty dish of sorghum.

Tom Hash, millet breeder and Principal Scientist at ICRISAT and GCP Principal Investigator for millet, shares Eva’s sentiments on GCP and the impact it is having in West Africa.

Between 2005 and 2007, GCP invested in genetic research for millet, which is the sixth most important cereal crop globally and a staple food (along with sorghum) in Burkina Faso, Chad, Eritrea, Mali, Niger, northern Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan.

With financial support from GCP, and drawing on lessons learnt from parallel GCP genetic research, including in sorghum and chickpea, ICRISAT was able to mine its considerable pearl millet genetic resources for desirable traits.

Hari D Upadhyaya, Principal Scientist and Head of Genebank at ICRISAT in India, led this task to develop and genotype a ‘composite collection’ of pearl millet. The team created a selection that strategically reduced the 21,594 accessions in the gene bank down to just 1,021. This collection includes lines developed at ICRISAT and material from other sources, with a range of valuable traits including tolerance to drought, heat and soil salinity and resistance to blast, downy mildew, ergot, rust and smut, and even resistance to multiple diseases.

The team then used molecular markers to fingerprint the DNA of plants grown from the collection.

“GCP supported collaboration with CIRAD, and our pearl millet breeding teams learnt how to do marker-based genetic diversity analysis,” says Tom. “This work, combined with the genomic resources work, did make some significant contributions to pearl millet research.”

Over 100 new varieties of pearl millet have recently been developed and released in Africa by the African Centre for Crop Improvement in South Africa, another developing country partner of ICRISAT and GCP. Tom says the initial genetic research was pivotal to this happening.

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

A Ghanaian farmer examines his pearl millet harvest.

From poverty to prosperity through partnerships

Patrick Okori says that GCP has enabled his organisation to make a much stronger contribution to the quality of science.

“Prior to GCP, ICRISAT was already one of the big investors in legume research, because that was its mandate. The arrival of GCP, however, expanded the number of partners that ICRISAT had, both locally and globally, through the resources, strategic meetings and partnership arrangements that GCP provided as a broad platform for engaging in genomic research and the life sciences.”

This expansion of ICRISAT, facilitated by GCP, also enabled researchers from across the world and in diverse fields to interact in ways they had never had the opportunity to before, says Vincent Vadez.

“GCP has allowed me to make contact with people working on other legumes, for example,” he says. “It has allowed us to test hypotheses in other related crops, and we’ve generated quite a bit of good science from that.”

Pooran Gaur has had a similar experience with his chickpea research at ICRISAT.

“GCP provided the first opportunity for us to work with the bean and cowpea groups, learning from each other. That cross-learning from other crops really helped us. You learn many things working together, and I think we have developed a good relationship, a good community for legumes now.”

This community environment has made the best use of an unusual variety of skills, knowledge and resources, agrees Rajeev Varshney.

“It brought together people from all kinds of scientific disciplines – from genomics, bioinformatics, biology, molecular biology and so on,” he says. “Such a pooling of complementary expertise and resources made great achievements possible.”

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Photo: A Paul-Bossuet/ICRISAT

Man and beast team up to transport chickpeas in Ethiopia.


Jun 012015

Crop science and collaboration help African farmers feed India’s appetite for chickpeas


Indian chickpea farmer with her harvest.

India loves chickpeas. With its largely vegetarian population, it has long been the world’s biggest producer and consumer of the nutritious legume. In recent years, however, India’s appetite for chickpea has outstripped production, and the country is also now the world’s biggest importer. With a ready market and new drought-tolerant varieties of chickpea, millions of smallholder African farmers are ready to make up India’s shortfall, improving livelihoods along the way and ensuring food security for some of the world’s most resource-poor countries.

GCP achieved real impacts in chickpea by catalysing and facilitating the deployment of advanced crop science, particularly molecular breeding, in the development of drought-tolerant varieties for both Africa and Asia. Over the course of its research, it also contributed to major advances in chickpea science and genomic knowledge.

Although India boasts the world’s biggest total chickpea harvest, productivity has been low in recent years with yields of less than one tonne per hectare, largely due to drought in the south of the country where much chickpea is grown. The country is relying increasingly on exports from producers in sub-Saharan Africa to supplement its domestic supply.

Drought has been hindering chickpea yields in Africa too, however, and this is a major concern not only for Africa but also for India. Ethiopia and Kenya are Africa’s largest chickpea producers, and both countries have been producing chickpea for export. However, their productivity has been limited, mainly because of heat stress and moisture loss, as well as by a lack of access to basic infrastructure and resources.

Indeed, drought has been the main constraint to chickpea productivity worldwide, and in countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya this is often made worse by crop disease, poor soil quality and limited farmer resources. While total global production of chickpea is around 8.6 million tonnes per year, drought causes losses of around 3.7 million tonnes worldwide.

A decade ago, chickpea researchers, supported by the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP), started to consider the potential for developing new drought-tolerant varieties that could help boost the world’s production.

They posed this question: If struggling African farmers were armed with adequate resources, could they make up India’s shortfall by growing improved chickpea varieties for export? Empowering farmers to stimulate and sustain their own food production, it was proposed, would not only offer food security to millions of farmers, but could ultimately secure future chickpea exports to India.

Photo: S Sridharan/ ICRISAT

An Ethiopian farmer harvests her chickpea crop.

In 2007, GCP kicked off a plan for a multiphased, multithemed Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project, which later became part of, and the largest project within, the GCP Legumes Research Initiative (RI; see box below) – the chickpea component of which would involve collaboration between researchers from India, Ethiopia and Kenya. The scope was not only to develop improved, drought-tolerant chickpeas that would thrive in semiarid conditions, but also to ensure that these varieties would be growing in farmers’ fields across Africa and South Asia within a decade.

“We knew our task would not be complete until we had improved varieties in the hands of farmers,” says GCP researcher Paul Kimurto from the Faculty of Agriculture, Egerton University, Kenya.

The success of GCP research in achieving these goals has opened up great opportunities for East African countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya, which are primed and ready to take advantage of a guaranteed chickpea market.

The Tropical Legumes I project (TLI) was initiated by GCP in 2007 and subsequently incorporated into the Programme’s Legumes Research Initiative (RI). The goal of the RI was to improve the productivity of four legumes – beans, chickpeas, cowpeas and groundnuts – that are important in food security and poverty reduction in developing countries, by providing solutions to overcome drought, poor soils, pests and diseases. TLI was led by GCP and focussed on Africa. Work on chickpea within TLI was coordinated by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). Target-country partners were the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), Egerton University in Kenya and the Indian Institute of Pulses Research. The National Center for Genome Resources in the USA was also a partner. Tropical Legumes II (TLII) was a sister project to TLI, led by ICRISAT on behalf of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). It focussed on large-scale breeding, seed multiplication and distribution primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, thus applying the ‘upstream’ research results from TLI and filtering them downstream into breeding materials for the ultimate benefit of resource-poor farmers. Many partners in TLI also worked on projects in TLII.

How drought affects chickpea

Chickpea is a pretty tough customer overall, being able to withstand and thrive on the most rugged and dry terrains, surviving with no irrigation – only the moisture left deep in the soil at the end of the rainy season.

Yet the legume does have one chink in its armour: if no rain falls at its critical maturing or ripening stage (otherwise known as the grain-filling period), crop yields will be seriously affected. The size and weight of chickpea legumes is determined by how successful this maturing stage is. Any stress, such as drought or disease, that occurs at this time will reduce the crop’s yield dramatically.

In India, this has been a particular problem for the past 40 years or so, as chickpea cropping areas have shifted from the cooler north to the warmer south.

“In the 1960s and 1970s when the agricultural Green Revolution introduced grain crops to northern India, chickpeas began to be replaced there by wheat or rice, and grown more in the south,” says Pooran Gaur from the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), headquartered in India. Pooran was an Activity Leader for the first phase of TLI and Product Delivery Coordinator for the chickpea component of the Legumes RI.

This shift meant the crop was no longer being grown in cooler, long-season environments, but in warmer, short-season environments where drought and diseases like Fusarium wilt have inhibited productivity.

“We have lost about four or five million hectares of chickpea growing area in northern India in the decades since that time,” says Pooran. “In the central and southern states, however, chickpea area more than doubled to nearly five million hectares.”

Escaping drought in India

“The solution we came up with was to develop varieties that were not only high yielding, but could also mature earlier and therefore have more chance of escaping terminal drought,” Pooran explains.

“Such varieties could also allow cereal farmers to produce a fast-growing crop in between the harvest and planting of their main higher yielding crops,” he says.

New short-duration varieties are expected to play a key role in expanding chickpea area into new niches where the available crop-growing seasons are shorter.

“In southern India now we are already seeing these varieties growing well, and their yield is very high,” says Pooran. “In fact, productivity has increased in the south by about seven to eight times in the last 10–12 years.”

The southern state of Andhra Pradesh, once considered unfavourable for chickpea cultivation, today has the highest chickpea yields (averaging 1.4 tonnes/hectare) in India, producing almost as much chickpea as Australia, Canada, Mexico and Myanmar combined.


Indian chickpea farmer with her harvest.

Developing new varieties: Tropical Legumes I in action

GCP-supported drought-tolerance breeding activities in chickpea created hugely valuable breeding materials and tools during the Programme’s decade of existence, focussing not only in India but African partner countries of Ethiopia and Kenya too. A key first step in Phase I of TLI was to create and phenotype – i.e. measure and record the observable characteristics of – a chickpea reference set. This provided the raw information on physical traits needed to make connections between phenotype and genotype, and allowed breeders to identify materials likely to contain drought tolerance genes. This enabled the creation in Phase II of breeding populations with superior genotypes, and so the development of new drought-tolerant prebreeding lines to feed into TLII.

A significant number of markers and other genomic resources were identified and made available during this time, including simple sequence repeats (SSRs), single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and Diversity Array Technologies (DArT) arrays. The combination of genetic maps with phenotypic information led to the identification of an important ‘hot spot’ region containing quantitative trait loci (QTLs) for several drought-related traits.

Two of the most important molecular-breeding approaches, marker-assisted backcrossing (MABC) and marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS), were then employed extensively in the selection of breeding materials and introgression of these drought-tolerance QTLs and other desired traits into elite chickpea varieties.

Photo: L Vidyasagar/ ICRISAT

Developing chickpea pods

Markers – DNA sequences with known locations on a chromosome – are like flags on the genetic code. Using them in molecular breeding involves several steps. Scientists must first discover a large number of markers, of which only a small number are likely to be polymorphic, i.e. to have different variants. These are then mapped and compared with phenotypic information, in the hope that just one or two might be associated with a useful trait. When this is the case, breeders can test large quantities of breeding materials to find out which have genes for, say, drought tolerance without having to grow plants to maturity.

The implementation of techniques such as MABC and MARS has become ever more effective over the course of GCP’s work in chickpea, thanks to the emergence and development of increasingly cost-effective types of markers such as SNPs, which can be discovered and explored in large numbers relatively cheaply. The integration of SNPs into chickpea genetic maps significantly accelerated molecular breeding.

The outcome of all these molecular-breeding efforts has been the development and release of locally adapted, drought-tolerant chickpea varieties in each of the target countries – Ethiopia, Kenya and India – where they are already changing lives with their significantly higher yields. Further varieties are in the pipeline and due for imminent release, and it is anticipated that, with partner organisations adopting the use of molecular markers as a routine part of their breeding programmes, many more will be developed over the coming years.

Molecular breeding in TLI was done in conjunction with target-country partners, with at least one cross carried out in each country. ICRISAT also backed up MABC activities with additional crosses. The elite lines that were developed underwent multilocation phenotyping in the three target countries and the best-adapted, most drought-tolerant lines were promoted in TLII.

The project placed heavy emphasis on capacity building for the target-country partners. Efforts were made, for instance, to help researchers and breeders at Egerton University in Kenya and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) in Ethiopia to undertake molecular breeding activities. At least one PhD and two Master’s students each from Kenya, Ethiopia and India were supported throughout this capacity-building process.

The magic of genetic diversity

One of the important advances in chickpea science supported by GCP, as part of TLI and its mission to develop drought-tolerant chickpea genotypes, was the development of the first ever chickpea multiparent advanced generation intercross (MAGIC) population.

It was created using eight well-adapted and drought-tolerant desi chickpea cultivars and elite lines from different genetic origins and backgrounds, including material from Ethiopia, Kenya, India and Tanzania. These were drawn from the chickpea reference set that GCP had previously developed and phenotyped, allowing an effective strategic selection of parental lines. The population was created by crossing these over several generations in such a way as to maximise the mix of genes in the offspring and ensure varied combinations.

MAGIC populations like these are a valuable genetic resource that makes trait mapping and gene discovery much easier, helping scientists identify useful genes and create varieties with enhanced genetic diversity. They can also be directly used as source material in breeding programmes; already, phenotyping a subset of the chickpea MAGIC population has led to the identification of valuable chickpea breeding lines that had favourable alleles for drought tolerance.

Through links with future molecular-breeding projects, it is expected that the investment in the development of MAGIC populations will benefit both African and South Asian chickpea production. GCP was also involved in developing MAGIC populations for cowpea, rice and sorghum, which were used to combine elite alleles for both simple traits, such as aluminium tolerance in sorghum and submergence tolerance in rice, and complex traits, such as drought or heat tolerance.

Decoding the chickpea genome


Chickpea seed

In 2013, GCP scientists, working with other research organisations around the world, announced the successful sequencing of the chickpea genome. This major breakthrough is expected to lead to the development of even more superior varieties that will transform chickpea production in semiarid environments.

A collaboration of 20 international research organisations under the banner of the International Chickpea Genome Sequencing Consortium (ICGSC), led by ICRISAT, identified more than 28,000 genes and several million genetic markers. These are expected to illuminate important genetic traits that may enhance new varieties.

“The value of this new resource for chickpea improvement cannot be overstated,” says Doug Cook from the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), United States. “It will provide the basis for a wide range of studies, from accelerated breeding, to identifying the molecular basis of a range of key agronomic traits, to basic studies of chickpea biology.”

Doug was one of three lead authors on the publication of the chickpea genome, along with Rajeev Varshney of ICRISAT, who was Principal Investigator for the chickpea work in GCP’s Legumes RI, and Jun Wang, Director of the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) of China.

“Making the chickpea genome available to the global research community is an important milestone in bringing chickpea improvement into the 21st century, to address the nutritional security of the poor – especially the rural poor in South Asia and Africa,” he says.

Increased food security will mean higher incomes and a better standard of living for farmers across sub-Saharan Africa.

For Pooran Gaur, GCP played the role of catalyst in this revolution in genomic resource development. “GCP got things started; it set the foundation. Now we are in a position to do further molecular breeding in chickpea.”

The chickpea genome-sequencing project was partly funded by GCP. Other collaborators included UC Davis and BGI-Shenzhen, with key involvement of national partners in India, Canada, Spain, Australia, Germany and the Czech Republic.

In September 2014, ICRISAT received a grant from the Indian Government for a three-year project to further develop chickpea genomic resources, by utilising the genome-sequence information to improve chickpea.

 Photo: L Vidyasagar/ICRISAT

Indian women roast fresh green chickpeas for an evening snack in Andhra Pradesh, India.

Chickpea success in Africa: new varieties already changing lives

With high-yielding, drought tolerant chickpea varieties emerging from the research efforts in molecular breeding, GCP’s partners also needed to reach out to farmers. Teaching African farmers about the advantages of growing chickpeas, either as a main crop or a rotation crop between cereals, has brought about a great uptake in chickpea production in recent years.

A key focus during the second phase of TLI, and onward into TLII, was on enhancing the knowledge, skills and resources of local breeders who have direct links to farmers, especially in Ethiopia and Kenya, and so also build the capacity of farmers themselves.

“We’ve held open days where farmers can interact with and learn from breeders,” says Asnake Fikre, Crop Research Director for EIAR and former TLI country coordinator of the chickpea work in Ethiopia.

“Farmers are now enrolled in farmer training schools at agricultural training centres, and there are also farmer participatory trials.

“This has given them the opportunity to participate in varietal selection with breeders, share their own knowledge and have their say in which varieties they prefer and know will give better harvest, in the conditions they know best.”

EIAR has also been helping train farmers to improve their farm practices to boost production and to become seed producers of these high-yielding chickpea varieties.

“Our goal was to have varieties that would go to farmers’ fields and make a clearly discernible difference,” says Asnake. “Now we are starting to make that kind of impact in my country.”

In fields across Ethiopia, the introduction of new, drought-tolerant varieties has already brought a dramatic increase in productivity, with yields doubling in recent years. This has transformed Ethiopia’s chickpea from simple subsistence crop to one of great commercial significance.

“Targeted farmers are now planting up to half their land with chickpea,” Asnake says. “This has not only improved the fertility of their soil but has had direct benefits for their income and diets.”

Varieties like the large-seeded and high-valued kabuli have presented new opportunities for farmers to earn extra income through the export industry, and indeed chickpea exports from eastern Africa have substantially increased since 2001.

Photo: A Paul-Bossuet/ICRISAT

“The high yields of the drought-tolerant and pest-resistant chickpea, and the market value, meant that I am no longer seen as a poor widow but a successful farmer,” says Ethiopian farmer Temegnush Dabi.

“Ultimately, by making wealth out of chickpea and chickpea technologies in this country, people are starting to change their lives,” says Asnake. “They are educating their children to the university level and constructing better houses, even in towns. This will have a massive impact on the next generation.”

A similar success story is unfolding in Kenya, where GCP efforts during TLI led to the release of six new varieties of chickpea in the five years prior to GCP’s close at the end of 2014; more are expected to be ready within the next three years.

While chickpea is a relatively new crop in Kenya it has been steadily gaining popularity, especially in the drylands, which make up over 80 percent of Kenya’s total land surface and support nearly 10 million Kenyans – about 34 percent of the country’s population.

Photo: GCP

Drought tolerance experiments in chickpea at Egerton University, Njoro, Kenya.

“It wasn’t until my university went into close collaboration with ICRISAT during TLII and gained more resources and training options – facilitated by GCP – that chickpea research gained leverage in Kenya,” Paul Kimurto explains. “Through GCP and ICRISAT, we had more opportunities to promote the crop in Kenya. It is still on a small scale here, but it is spreading into more and more areas.”

Kenyan farmers are now discovering the benefits of chickpea as a rotational or ‘relay’ crop, he says, due to its ability to enhance soil fertility. In the highlands where fields are normally left dry and nothing is planted from around November to February, chickpea is a very good option to plant instead of letting fields stay fallow until the next season.

“By fixing nitrogen and adding organic matter to the soil, chickpeas can minimise, even eliminate, the need for costly fertilisers,” says Paul. “This is certainly enough incentive for cereal farmers to switch to pulse crops such as chickpea that can be managed without such costs.”

Households in the drylands have often been faced with hunger due to frequent crop failure of main staples, such as maize and beans, on account of climate change, Paul explains. With access to improved varieties, however, farmers can now produce a fast-growing chickpea crop between the harvest and planting of their main cereals. In the drylands they are now growing chickpeas after wheat and maize harvests during the short rains, when the land would otherwise lie fallow.

“Already, improved chickpeas have increased the food security and nutritional status of more than 27,000 households across the Baringo, Koibatek, Kerio Valley and Bomet areas of Kenya,” Paul says.

It is a trend he hopes will continue right across sub-Saharan Africa in the years to come, attracting more and more resource-poor farmers to grow chickpea.

Chickpea’s promise meeting future challenges

Beyond the end of GCP and the funding it provided, chickpea researchers are hopeful they will be able to continue working directly with farmers in the field, to ensure that their interests and needs are being addressed.

“To sustain integrated breeding practices post-2014, GCP has established Communities of Practice (CoPs) that are discipline- and commodity-oriented,” says Ndeye Ndack Diop, GCP’s Capacity Building Leader and TLI Project Manager. “The ultimate goal of the CoPs is to provide a platform for community problem solving, idea generation and information sharing.”

Ndeye Ndack has been impressed with the way the chickpea community has embraced the CoP concept, noting that Pooran has played an important part in this and the TLI projects. “Pooran was able to bring developing-country partners outside of TLI into the CoP and have them work on TLI-related activities. Being part of the community means they have been able to source breeding material and learn from others. In so doing, we are seeing these partners in Kenya and Ethiopia develop their own germplasm.

“Furthermore, much of this new germplasm has been developed by Master’s and PhD students, which is great for the future of these breeding programmes.”

“GCP played a catalytic role in this regard,” explains Rajeev Varshney. “GCP provided a community environment in ways that very few other organisations can, and in ways that made the best use of resources,” he says. “It brought together people from all kinds of scientific disciplines: from genomics, bioinformatics, biology, molecular biology and so on. Such a pooling of complementary expertise and resources made great achievements possible.”

Photo: A Paul-Bossuet/ ICRISAT

An Ethiopian farmer loads his bounteous chickpea harvest onto his donkey.

For Rajeev, the challenge facing chickpea research beyond GCP’s sunset is whether an adequate framework will be there to continue bringing this kind of community together.

“But that’s what we’re trying to do in the next phase of the Tropical Legumes Project (Tropical Legumes III, or TLIII), which kicks off in 2015,” explains Rajeev, who will be TLIII’s Principal Investigator. TLIII is to be led by ICRISAT.

“We will continue to work with the major partners as we did during GCP, which will involve, first of all, upscaling the activities we are doing now,” he says. “India currently has the capacity, the resources, to do this.”

Rajeev is hopeful that the relatively smaller national partners from Ethiopia and Kenya, and associated partners such as Egerton University, EIAR and maybe others, will have similar opportunities. “We hope they can also start working with their governments, or with agencies like USAID, and be successful at convincing them to fund these projects into the future, as GCP has been doing,” he says.

“The process is like a jigsaw puzzle: we have the borders done, and a good idea of what the picture is and where the rest of the pieces will fit,” he says.

Certainly for Paul Kimurto, the picture is clear for the future of chickpea breeding in Kenya.

“Improvements in chickpea resources cannot end now that new varieties have started entering farmers’ fields,” he says. “We’ve managed to develop a good, solid breeding programme here at Egerton University. The infrastructure is in place, the facilities are here – we are indeed equipped to maintain the life and legacy of GCP well beyond 2015.”

This can only be good news for lovers of the legume in India. With millions of smallholder farmers in Kenya and Ethiopia poised to exploit a ready market for new varieties that will change their families’ lives, chickpea’s potential for ensuring food security across the developing world seems more promising than ever.

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Mar 042015


Photo: IRRI

A woman harvests rice in Ifugao, The Philippines.

Plant geneticist Sigrid Heuer remembers very clearly entering the transgenic greenhouse in Manila to see her postdoctoral student holding up a rice plant with ‘monster’ roots.

“They were enormous,” she recalls. “This is when I knew we had the right gene. It confirmed years of work. That was our eureka moment.

So massive was the effect of that gene that I knew we had the right one.”

This genetic discovery – described in more detail a little later – is one of the shining lights of the 10-year-long CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP) established in 2004.

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.

Photo: A Barclay/IRRI

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.

Rice is a staple for nearly half of the world’s seven billion people, and global consumption is rising. More than 90 percent of all the rice produced is consumed in Asia, where it is a staple for 2.4 billion people – a majority of the population. Outside Asia, rice consumption continues to rise steadily, with the fastest growth in sub-Saharan Africa, where people are eating 50 percent more rice than they were two decades ago. More than 90 percent of the world’s rice is produced by farmers in six countries: China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Japan. China and India account for nearly half of that, with an output of more than 700 million tonnes.

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: a two-act tale Phase I (2004–08) involved ‘discovery’ projects for 21 crops: beans, cassava, chickpeas, cowpeas, groundnuts, maize, rice, sorghum, wheat, bananas (and plantains), barley, coconuts, finger millet, foxtail millet, lentils, pearl millet, pigeonpeas, potatoes, soya beans, sweetpotatoes and yams. Phase II (2009–14) focussed on nine of these 21: beans, cassava, chickpeas, cowpeas, groundnuts, maize, rice, sorghum and wheat.

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.

For more on the relationship between GCP and IRRI – and an extra sprinkling of salt on your rice (fields) – see our Sunset Story ‘Rice research reaps a rich harvest of products, people and partners’.

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.”

Photo: IRRI

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.

Matthias, now a senior scientist in the Crop, Livestock and Environment Division at the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS), says that for a long time he was not sure if it was just long roots: “It was a real chicken-and-egg scenario – does strong phosphorus uptake spur root growth, or is it the other way around?”

Photo: IRRI

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.”

Photo: IRRI

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.

Photo: IRRI

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.

Photo: T Saputro/CIFOR

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.

During GCP Phase I, a team led by Leon Kochian of Cornell University, USA, with colleagues at the Brazilian Corporation of Agricultural Research (EMBRAPA), JIRCAS and Moi University, Kenya, successfully identified and cloned a major sorghum aluminium-tolerance gene.

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.

For more on MAGIC see our Sunset Story ‘Rice research reaps a rich harvest of products, people and partners’.

Photo: IRRI

A farmer harvests rice in Nepal.

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.”

Nourollah, from Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement (Agropolis–CIRAD; Agricultural Research for Development), says sometimes he felt overwhelmed coordinating GCP’s rice projects because “the challenges were perhaps too big.”

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.

Photo: L Hartless/ACDI VOCA/USAID

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.

Making the most of comparative genomics Over the last 20 years, genetic researchers all over the world have been mapping the genomes of various crops. A genome is the total of all genes that make up the genetic code of an individual. Genome maps are now being used by geneticists and plant breeders to identify similarities and differences between the genes of different crop species. This process is termed comparative genomics and was an important tool for GCP during its second phase (2008–2014).

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.

Photo: A Erlangga/CIFOR

Rice farmers in Indonesia.

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