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Oct 122015


Photo: One Acre Fund/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A Kenyan farmer harvesting her maize.

“The map of Kenya’s maize-growing regions mirrors the map of the nation’s acid soils.”

So says Dickson Ligeyo, senior research officer at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO; formerly the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, or KARI), who believes this paints a sombre picture for his country’s maize farmers.

Maize is a staple crop for Kenyans, with 90 percent of the population depending on it for food. However, acid soils cause yield losses of 17–50 percent across the nation.

Soil acidity is a major environmental and economic concern in many more countries around the world. The availability of nutrients in soil is affected by pH, so acid conditions make it harder for plants to get a balanced diet. High acidity causes two major problems: perilously low levels of phosphorus and toxically high levels of aluminium. Aluminium toxicity affects 38 percent of farmland in Southeast Asia, 31 percent in Latin America and 20 percent in East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and North America.

Aluminium toxicity in soil comes close to rivalling drought as a food-security threat in critical tropical food-producing regions. By damaging roots, acid soils deprive plants of the nutrients and water they need to grow – a particularly bitter effect when water is scarce.

Maize, meanwhile, is one of the most economically important food crops worldwide. It is grown in virtually every country in the world, and it is a staple food for more than 1.2 billion people in developing countries across sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. In many cultures it is consumed primarily as porridge: polenta in Italy; angu in Brazil; and isitshwala, nshima, pap, posho,sadza or ugali in Africa.

Photo: Allison Mickel/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Ugali, a stiff maize porridge that is a staple dish across East Africa, being prepared in Tanzania.

Maize is also a staple food for animals reared for meat, eggs and dairy products. Around 60 percent of global maize production is used for animal feed.

The world demand for maize is increasing at the same time as global populations burgeon and climate changes. Therefore, improving the ability of maize to withstand acid soils and produce higher yields with less reliable rainfall is paramount. This is why the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP) invested almost USD 12.5 million into maize research between 2004 and 2014.

GCP’s goal was to facilitate the use of genetic diversity and advanced plant science to improve food security in developing countries through the breeding of ‘super’ crops – including maize – able to tolerate drought and poor soils and resist diseases.

 By weight, more maize is produced each year than any other grain: global production is more than 850 million tonnes. Maize production is increasing at twice the annual rate of rice and three times that of wheat. In 2020, demand for maize in developing countries alone is expected to exceed 500 million tonnes and will surpass the demand for both rice and wheat.  This projected rapid increase in demand is mainly because maize is the grain of choice to feed animals being reared for meet – but it is placing strain on the supply of maize for poor human consumers. Demand for maize as feed for poultry and pigs is growing, particularly in East and Southeast Asia, as an ever-increasing number of people in Asia consume meat. In some areas of Asia, maize is already displacing sorghum and rice. Acreage allocated to maize production in South and Southeast Asia has been expanding by 2.2 percent annually since 2001. In its processed form, maize is also used for biofuel (ethanol), and the starch and sugars from maize end up in beer, ice cream, syrup, shoe polish, glue, fireworks, ink, batteries, mustard, cosmetics, aspirin and paint.

Researchers take on the double whammy of acid soils and drought

Part of successfully breeding higher-yielding drought-tolerant maize varieties involves improving plant genetics for acid soils. In these soils, aluminium toxicity inhibits root growth, reducing the amount of water and nutrients that the plant can absorb and compounding the effects of drought.

Improving plant root development for aluminium tolerance and phosphorous efficiency can therefore have the positive side effect of higher plant yield when water is limited.

Photo: A Wangalachi/CIMMYT

A farmer in Tanzania shows the effects of drought on her maize crop. The maize ears are undersized with few grains.

Although plant breeders have exploited the considerable variation in aluminium tolerance between different maize varieties for many years, aluminium toxicity has been a significant but poorly understood component of plant genetics. It is a particularly complex trait in maize that involves multiple genes and physiological mechanisms.

The solution is to take stock of what maize germplasm is available worldwide, characterise it, clone the sought-after genes and implement new breeding methods to increase diversity and genetic stocks.

Scientists join hands to unravel maize complexity

Scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) got their heads together between 2005 and 2008 to itemise what maize stocks were available.

Marilyn Warburton, then a molecular geneticist at CIMMYT, led this GCP-funded project. Her goal was to discover how all the genetic diversity in maize gene-bank collections around the globe might be used for practical plant improvement. She first gathered samples from gene banks all over the world, including those of CIMMYT and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Scientists from developing country research centres in China, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria, Thailand and Vietnam also contributed by supplying DNA from their local varieties.

Photo: X Fonseca/CIMMYT

Maize diversity.

Researchers then used molecular markers and a bulk fingerprinting method – which Marilyn was instrumental in developing – for three purposes: to characterise the structure of maize populations, to better understand how maize migrated across the world, and to complete the global picture of maize biodiversity. Scientists were also using markers to search for new genes associated with desirable traits.

Allen Oppong, a maize pathologist and breeder from Ghana’s Crops Research Institute (CRI), of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, was supported by GCP from 2007 to 2010 to characterise Ghana’s maize germplasm. Trained in using the fingerprinting technique, Allen was able to identify distinctly different maize germplasm in the north of Ghana (with its dry savanna landscape) and in the south (with its high rainfall). He also identified mixed germplasm, which he says demonstrates that plant germplasm often finds its way to places where it is not suitable for optimal yield and productivity. Maize yields across the country are low.

Stocktaking a world’s worth of maize for GCP was a challenge, but not the only one, according to Marilyn. “In the first year it was hard to see how all the different partners would work together. Data analysis and storage was the hardest; everyone seemed to have their own idea about how the data could be stored, accessed and analysed best.

“The science was also evolving, even as we were working, so you could choose one way to sequence or genotype your data, and before you were even done with the project, a better way would be available,” she recalls.

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Maize ears drying in Ghana.

Comparing genes: sorghum gene paves way for maize aluminium tolerance

In parallel to Marilyn’s work, scientists at the Brazilian Corporation of Agricultural Research (EMBRAPA) had already been advancing research on plant genetics for acid soils and the effects of aluminium toxicity on sorghum – spurred on by the fact that almost 70 percent of Brazil’s arable land is made up of acid soils.

What was of particular interest to GCP in 2004 was that the Brazilians, together with researchers at Cornell University in the USA, had recently mapped and identified the major sorghum aluminium tolerance locus AltSB, and were working on isolating the major gene within it with a view to cloning it. Major genes were known to control aluminium tolerance in sorghum, wheat and barley and produce good yields in soils that had high levels of aluminium. The gene had also been found in rape and rye.

GCP embraced the opportunity to fund more of this work with a view to speeding up the development of maize – as well as sorghum and rice – germplasm that can withstand the double whammy of acid soils and drought.

Photo: L Kochian

Maize trials in the field at EMBRAPA. The maize plants on the left are aluminium-tolerant and so able to withstand acid soils, while those on the right are not.

Leon Kochian, Director of the Robert W Holley Center for Agriculture and Health, United States Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service and Professor at Cornell University, was a Principal Investigator for various GCP research projects investigating how to improve grain yields of crops grown in acid soils. “GCP was interested in our work because we were working with such critical crops,” he says.

“The idea was to use discoveries made in the first half of the GCP’s 10-year programme – use comparative genomics to look into genes of rice and maize to see if we can see relations in those genes – and once you’ve cloned a gene, it is easier to find a gene that can work for other crops.”

The intensity of GCP-supported maize research shifted up a gear in 2007, after the team led by Jurandir Magalhães, research scientist in molecular genetics and genomics of maize and sorghum at EMBRAPA, used positional cloning to identify the major sorghum aluminium tolerance gene SbMATE responsible for the AltSB aluminium tolerance locus. The team comprised researchers from EMBRAPA, Cornell, the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS) and Moi University in Kenya.

By combing the maize genome searching for a similar gene to sorghum’s SbMATE, Jurandir’s EMBRAPA colleague Claudia Guimarães and a team of GCP-supported scientists discovered the maize aluminium tolerance gene ZmMATE1. High expression of this gene, first observed in maize lines with three copies of ZmMATE1, has been shown to increase aluminium tolerance.  ZmMATE1 improves grain yields in acid soil by up to one tonne per hectare when introgressed in an aluminium-sensitive line.

Photos: 1 – V Alves ; 2 – F Mendes; both edited by C Guimarães

The genetic region, or locus, containing the ZmMATE1 aluminium tolerance gene is known as qALT6. Photo 1 shows a rhyzobox containing two layers of soil: a corrected top-soil and lower soils with 15 percent aluminium saturation. On the right, near-isogenic lines (NILs) introgressed with qALT6 show deeper roots and longer secondary roots in the acidic lower soil, whereas on the left the maize line without qALT6, L53, shows roots mainly confined to the corrected top soil. Photo 2 shows maize ears from lines without qALT6 (above) and with qALT6 (below); the lines with qALT6 maintain their size and quality even under high aluminium levels of 40 percent aluminium saturation.

The outcomes of these GCP-supported research projects provided the basic materials, such as molecular markers and donor sources of the positive alleles, for molecular-breeding programmes focusing on improving maize production and stability on acid soils in Latin America, Africa and other developing regions.

Kenya deploys powerful maize genes

One of those researchers crucial to achieving impact in GCP’s work in maize was Samuel (Sam) Gudu of Moi University, Kenya. From 2010 he was the Principal Investigator for GCP’s project on using marker-assisted backcrossing (MABC) to improve aluminium tolerance and phosphorous efficiency in maize in Kenya. This project combined molecular and conventional breeding approaches to speed up the development of maize varieties adapted to the acid soils of Africa, and was closely connected to the other GCP comparative genomics projects in maize and sorghum.

MABC is a type of marker-assisted selection (see box), which Sam’s team – including Dickson Ligeyo of KALRO – used to combine new molecular materials developed through GCP with Kenyan varieties. They have thus been able to significantly advance the breeding of maize varieties suitable for soils in Kenya and other African countries.

Marker-assisted selection helps breeders like Sam Gudu more quickly develop plants that have desirable genes. When two plants are sexually crossed, both positive and negative traits are inherited. The ongoing process of selecting plants with more desirable traits and crossing them with other plants to transfer and combine such traits takes many years using conventional breeding techniques, as each generation of plants must be grown to maturity and phenotyped – that is, the observable characteristics of the plants must be measured to determine which plants might contain genes for valuable traits.   By using molecular markers that are known to be linked to useful genes such as ZmMATE1, breeders can easily test plant materials to see whether or not these genes are present. This helps them to select the best parent plants to use in their crosses, and accurately identify which of the progeny have inherited the gene or genes in question without having to grow them all to maturity. Marker-assisted selection therefore reduces the number of years it takes to breed plant varieties with desired traits.

Maize and Comparative Genomics were two of seven Research Initiatives (RIs) where GCP concentrated on advancing researchers’ and breeders’ skills and resources in developing countries. Through this work, scientists have been able to characterise maize germplasm using improved trait observation and characterisation methods (phenotyping), implement molecular-breeding programmes, enhance strategic data management and build local human and infrastructure capacity.

The ultimate goal of the international research collaboration on comparative genomics in maize was to improve maize yields grown on acidic soils under drought conditions in Kenya and other African countries, as well as in Latin America. Seven institutes partnered up to for the comparative genomics research: Moi University, KALRO, EMBRAPA, Cornell University, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), JIRCAS and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

“Before funding by GCP, we were mainly working on maize to develop breeding products resistant to disease and with increased yield,” says Sam. “At that time we had not known that soil acidity was a major problem in the parts of Kenya where we grow maize and sorghum. GCP knew that soil acidity could limit yields, so in the work with GCP we managed to characterise most of our acid soils. We now know that it was one of the major problems for limiting the yield of maize and sorghum.

“The relationship to EMBRAPA and Cornell University is one of the most important links we have. We developed material much faster through our collaboration with our colleagues in the advanced labs. I can see that post-GCP we will still want to communicate and interact with our colleagues in Brazil and the USA to enable us to continue to identify molecular materials that we discover,” he says. Sam and other maize researchers across Kenya, including Dickson, have since developed inbred, hybrid and synthetic varieties with improved aluminium tolerance for acid soils, which are now available for African farmers.

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

A Kenyan maize farmer.

“We crossed them [the new genes identified to have aluminium tolerance] with our local material to produce the materials we required for our conditions,” says Sam.

“The potential for aluminium-tolerant and phosphorous-efficient material across Africa is great. I know that in Ethiopia, aluminium toxicity from acid soil is a problem. It is also a major problem in Tanzania. It is a major problem in South Africa and a major problem in Kenya. So our breeding work, which is starting now to produce genetic materials that can be used directly, or could be developed even further in these other countries, is laying the foundation for maize improvement in acid soils.”

Sam is very proud of the work: “Several times I have felt accomplishment, because we identified material for Kenya for the first time. No one else was working on phosphorous efficiency or aluminium tolerance, and we have come up with materials that have been tested and have become varieties. It made me feel that we’re contributing to food security in Kenya.”

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Maize grain for sale.

Maize for meat: GCP’s advances in maize genetics help feed Asia’s new appetites

Reaping from the substantial advances in maize genetics and breeding, researchers in Asia were also able to enhance Asian maize genetic resources.

Photo: D Mowbray/CIMMYT

A pig roots among maize ears on a small farm in Nepal.

Bindiganavile Vivek, a senior maize breeder for CIMMYT based in India, has been working with GCP since 2008 on improving drought tolerance in maize, especially for Asia, for two reasons: unrelenting droughts and a staggering growth the importance of maize as a feedstock. This work was funded by GCP as part of its Maize Research Initiative.

“People’s diets across Asia changed after government policies changed in the 1990s. We had a more free market economy, and along with that came more money that people could spend. That prompted a shift towards a non vegetarian diet,” Vivek recounts.

“Maize, being the number one feed crop of the world, started to come into demand. From the year 2000 up to now, the growing area of maize across Asia has been increasing by about two percent every year. That’s a phenomenal increase. It’s been replacing other crops – sorghum and rice. There’s more and more demand.

“Seventy percent of the maize that is produced in Asia is used as feed. And 70 percent of that feed is poultry feed.”

In Vietnam, for example, the government is actively promoting the expansion of maize acreage, again displacing rice. Other Asian nations involved in the push for maize include China, Indonesia and The Philippines.

Photo: A Erlangga/CIFOR

A farmer in Indonesia transports his maize harvest by motorcycle.

The problem with this growth is that 80 percent of the 19 million hectares of maize in South and Southeast Asia relies on rain as its only source of water, so is prone to drought: “Wherever you are, you cannot escape drought,” says Vivek. And resource-poor farmers have limited access to improved maize products or hybrids appropriate for their situation.

Vivek’s research for GCP focused on the development – using marker-assisted breeding methods, specifically marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS) – of new drought-tolerant maize adapted to many countries in Asia. His goal was to transfer the highest expression of drought tolerance in maize into elite well-adapted Asian lines targeted at drought-prone or water-constrained environments.

Asia’s existing maize varieties had no history of breeding for drought tolerance, only for disease resistance. To make a plant drought tolerant, many genes have to be incorporated into a new variety. So Vivek asked: “How do you address the increasing demand for maize that meets the drought-tolerance issue?”

The recent work on advancing maize genetics for acid soils in the African and Brazilian GCP projects meant it was a golden opportunity for Vivek to reap some of the new genetic resources.

“This was a good opportunity to use African germplasm, bring it into India and cross it to some Asia-adapted material,” he says.

Photo: E Phipps/CIMMYT

Stored maize ears hanging in long bunches outside a house in China.

A key issue Vivek faced, however, was that most African maize varieties are white, and most Asian maize varieties are yellow. “You cannot directly deploy what you breed in Africa into Asia,” Vivek says. “Plus, there’s so much difference in the environments [between Africa and Asia] and maize is very responsive to its environment.”

The advances in marker-assisted breeding since the inception of GCP contributed significantly towards the success of Vivek’s team.

“In collaboration with GCP, IITA, Cornell University and Monsanto, CIMMYT has initiated the largest public sector MARS breeding approach in the world,” says Vivek.

The outcome is good: “We now have some early-generation, yellow, drought-tolerant inbred germplasm and lines suitable for Asia.

“GCP gave us a good start. We now need to expand and build on this,” says Vivek.

GCP’s supported work laid the foundation for other CIMMYT projects, such as the Affordable, Accessible, Asian Drought-Tolerant Maize project funded by the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture. This project is developing yet more germplasm with drought tolerance.

A better picture: GCP brightens maize research

Dickson Ligeyo’s worries of a stormy future for Kenya’s maize production have lifted over the 10 years of GCP. At the end of 2014, Kenya had two new varieties that were in the final stage of testing in the national performance trials before being released to farmers.

“There is a brighter picture for Kenya’s maize production since we have acquired acid-tolerant germplasm from Brazil, which we are using in our breeding programmes,” Dickson says.

In West Africa, researchers are also revelling in the opportunity they have been given to help enhance local yields in the face of a changing climate. “My institute benefited from GCP not only in terms of human resource development, but also in provision of some basic equipment for field phenotyping and some laboratory equipment,” says Allen Oppong in Ghana.

“Through the support of GCP, I was able to characterise maize landraces found in Ghana using the bulk fingerprinting technique. This work has been published and I think it’s useful information for maize breeding in Ghana – and possibly other parts of the world.”

The main challenge now for breeders, according to Allen, is getting the new varieties out to farmers: “Most people don’t like change. The new varieties are higher yielding, disease resistant, nutritious – all good qualities. But the challenge is demonstrating to farmers that these materials are better than what they have.”


This Kenyan farmer is very happy with his healthy maize crop, grown using an improved variety during a period of drought.

Certainly GCP has strengthened the capacity of researchers across Africa, Asia and Latin America, training researchers in maize breeding, data management, statistics, trial evaluations and phenotyping. The training has been geared so that scientists in developed countries can use genetic diversity and advanced plant science to improve crops for greater food security in the developing world.

Elliot Tembo, a maize breeder with the private sector in sub-Saharan Africa says: “As a breeder and a student, I have been exposed to new breeding tools through GCP. Before my involvement, I was literally blind in the use of molecular tools. Now, I am no longer relying only on pedigree data – which is not always reliable – to classify germplasm.”

Allen agrees: “GCP has had tremendous impact on my life as a researcher. The capacity-building programme supported my training in marker-assisted selection training at CIMMYT in Mexico. This training exposed me to modern techniques in plant breeding and genomics. Similarly, it built my confidence and work efficiency.”

There is no doubt that GCP research has brightened the picture for maize research and development where it is most needed: with researchers in developing countries where poor farmers and communities rely on maize as their staple food and main crop.

More links

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

A farmer displays maize harvested on his farm in Laos.

Oct 052015

Cassava brings life to African people

Photo: N Palmer/CIATBeyond the glittering coastline of what was once known as the Gold Coast, Ghana’s shrublands and rich forested hills are split by forking rivers that reach inland through the country’s lush tropics, into drier western Africa. In the past 40 years, seven major droughts have battered the people of Africa – with the most significant and devastating occurring in the Sahel region and the Horn of Africa in the early 1970s and 1980s.

Photo: Y Wachira/Bioversity International

This little girl in Kenya already seems to know that cassava roots are precious.

But despite the massive social disruption and human suffering that these droughts cause, life goes on. In south-eastern Ghana and in Togo, the three-million-plus people who speak the Ewe language have a word for this. It is agbeli: ‘There is life’. It is no coincidence that this word is also their name for a tropical and subtropical crop that survives through the worst times to feed Africa’s families: cassava.

Cassava is a lifeline for African people, and is a particularly important staple food for poorer farmers. More cassava is produced in Africa than any other crop, and it is grown by nearly every farming family in sub-Saharan Africa, supplying about a third of the region’s daily energy intake. In the centuries since Portuguese traders introduced this Amazonian plant to Africa, cassava has flourished, yielding up to 40 tonnes per hectare.

Hear more on just why cassava is so important to food security from Emmanuel Okogbenin, of Nigeria’s National Root Crops Research Institute, in the video below (or watch on Youtube):


African countries produced nearly 140 million tonnes of cassava in 2012 – but most of the production is subsistence farming by small-scale farmers. Even the undisputed global cassava giant, Nigeria, currently produces only just enough to feed its population – and although the country is increasingly moving towards production of cassava for export as an industrial raw material, the poorest farmers often do not produce enough to sell, or have access to these markets.

Because cassava does so well on poor soils, on marginal land and with little rainfall, it can outlast its more sophisticated crop competitors: wheat, rice and maize. In fact, under harsh conditions such as drought, the amount of energy a given area of cassava plants can produce in the form of starchy carbohydrates outstrips all other crops. Chiedozie Egesi, a plant breeder and geneticist at Nigeria’s National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), describes cassava as “the crop you can bet on when every other thing is failing”.

Benefits of cassava to African farmers and families Most cassava grown is consumed as food – for instance, as starchy, fine powder called tapioca or the fermented, flaky garri. The tubers can also be eaten boiled or fried in chunks, and are used in many other local dishes.  If cassava is grown in favourable conditions, its firm, white flesh can be rich in calcium and vitamin C and contain other vitamins such as B1, B2 and niacin. Some improved varieties are fortified with increased vitamin A levels, giving them a golden hue.   As well as being eaten directly, cassava can also be processed into ingredients for animal feed, alcohol production, confectionery, sweeteners, glues, plywood, textiles, paper and drugs.  Cassava tubers are easy to save for a rainy day – unlike other crops, they can be left in the ground for up to two years, so harvesting can be delayed until extra food is needed, or to await more optimal processing or marketing conditions.

Despite cassava’s superhero cape, however, there’s no denying that its production is not at its highest when faced with diseases, pests, low-nutrient soils and drought. How plants deal with problems like low nutrients or dry conditions is called ‘stress tolerance’ by scientists. Improving this tolerance – plus resistance to diseases and pests – is the long-term goal for staple crops around the world so that they have higher yields in the face of capricious weather and evolving threats.

In the 1980s, catastrophe struck cassava production in East and Central Africa. A serious outbreak of cassava mosaic disease (CMD) – which first slowly shrivels and yellows cassava leaves, then its roots – lasted for almost 15 years and nearly halved cassava yields in that time. Food shortages led to localised famines in 1993 and 1997.

Other diseases affecting cassava include cassava brown streak disease (CBSD), cassava bacterial blight, cassava anthracnose disease and root rot. CBSD is impossible to detect above ground. Its damage is revealed only after harvest, when it can be seen that the creeping brown lesions have spoilt the white flesh of the tubers, rendering them inedible. Many cassava diseases are transmitted through infected cuttings, affecting the next generation in the next season. Pests that also prey on cassava include the cassava green mite and the variegated grasshopper.

Between the effects of drought, diseases, pests and low soil nutrients, cassava yields vary widely – losses can total between 50 and 100 percent in the worst times.

Photo: IITA

Symptoms of cassava mosaic disease (CMD) and cassava brown streak disease (CBSD), both of which can cripple cassava yields.

GCP takes the first steps to kick start cassava research

The next step forward for cassava appeared to be research towards breeding stronger and more resilient cassava varieties. However, cassava research had long been neglected – scientists say it’s a tricky crop that has garnered far less policy, scientific and monetary interest than the comparatively glamorous crops of maize, rice and wheat.

Watch as Emmanuel tells us more about the complexities and challenges of cassava breeding in the video below (or on YouTube):


Cassava is a plant which ‘drags its feet’: creating new plants has to be done from cuttings, which are costly to cut and handle and don’t store well; the plant takes up to two years to grow to maturity; and it is onerous to harvest. Elizabeth Parkes, of Ghana’s Crops Research Institute (CRI) (currently on secondment at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, IITA), says the long wait can be difficult.

This is where the work of scientists funded by the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP) came in. Plant breeder and molecular geneticist Emmanuel Okogbenin of NRCRI led the cassava research push launched in 2010. He explains that before GCP, “most national programmes didn’t really have established crop breeding programmes, and didn’t have the manpower” to do the scale of research GCP supported.

Usually, researchers looking to breed crops that are more resistant to drought, diseases and pests would use conventional breeding methods that could take considerable time to deliver any results, especially given cassava’s slow path to maturity. Researchers would be trying to select disease- and pest-resistant plants by looking at how they’re growing in the field, without any way to see the different genetic strengths each plant has.

Photo: M Mitchell/IFPRI

An IITA researcher exams cassava roots in the field.

This is where new ‘molecular breeding’ tools are particularly useful, given that – genetically – cassava presents more of a challenge to breeders than its cereal counterparts. Like many other vegetatively propagated crops, cassava is highly heterozygous, meaning that the counterpart genes on paired chromosomes tend to be different versions, or alleles, rather than the same. This makes it difficult to identify good parent plants for breeding and, after these are crossed, to accurately select progeny with desired traits. Useful – or detrimental – genes can be present in a cassava plant’s genetic code but not reflected in the plant itself, making breeding more unpredictable – and adding extra obstacles to the hunt for the exact genes that code for better varieties of cassava.

Although late to the world of molecular breeding, cassava had not missed its chance. Guided by GCP’s ambitious remit to increase food security through modern crop breeding, GCP-supported scientists have applied and developed molecular breeding methods that shorten the breeding process by identifying which plants have good genes, even before starting on that long cassava growth cycle. Increasing the capacity of local plant breeders to apply these methods has great potential for delivering better varieties to farmers much faster than has traditionally been the case.

Charting cassava’s genetic material was the first step in the researchers’ molecular quest. Part of the challenge for African and South American researchers was to create a genetic map of the cassava genome. Emmanuel describes the strong foundation that these early researchers built for those coming after: “It was significant when the first draft of the cassava genome sequence was released. It enabled rapid progress in cassava research activities and outcomes, both for GCP and cassava researchers worldwide.”

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Cassava on sale in Kampala, Uganda.

Once cassava’s genome had been mapped, the pace picked up. In just one year, GCP-supported scientists phenotyped and genotyped more than 1000 genetically different cassava plants – that is, measured and collected a large amount of information about both their physical and their genetic traits – searching for ‘superstar’ plants with resistance to more than one crop threat. During this process, scientists compare plant’s physical characteristics with their genetic makeup, looking for correlations that reveal regions of the DNA that seem to contain genes that confer traits they are looking for, such as resistance to a particular disease. Within these, scientists then identify sequences of DNA, or ‘molecular markers’, associated with these valuable genes or genetic regions.

Plant breeders can use this knowledge to apply an approach known as marker-assisted selection, choosing their breeding crosses based directly on which plants contain useful genes, using markers like tags. This makes producing better plant varieties dramatically faster and more efficient. “It narrowed the search at an early stage,” explains Emmanuel, “so we could select only material that displayed markers for the genetic traits we’re looking for. There is no longer any need to ship in tonnes of plant material to Africa.”

Like breadcrumbs leading to a clue, breeders use markers to lead to identifying actual genes (rather than just a site on the genome) that give certain plants desirable characteristics. However, this is a particularly difficult process in cassava. Genes are often obscured, partly due to cassava’s highly heterozygous nature. In trials in Africa, where CMD is widespread, resistant types were hard to spot when challenged with the disease, and reliably resistant parents were hard to pin down.

This meant that two decades of screening cassava varieties from South America – where CMD does not yet exist yet – had identified no CMD-resistance genes. But screening of cassava from Nigeria eventually yielded markers for a CMD-resistance gene – a great success for the international collaborative team led by Martin Fregene, who was based in Colombia at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

This finding was a win for African plant breeders, as it meant they could use molecular breeding to combine the genes producing high-quality and high-yielding cassava from South America with the CMD-resistance gene found in cassava growing in Nigeria.

Chiedozie Egesi, who led the work on biotic trait markers, explains the importance of combining varieties from South America with varieties from Africa: “Because cassava is not native to Africa, those varieties are not as genetically diverse, so we needed to bring genetic diversity from the centre of origin: South America. Coupling resistance genes from African varieties with genes for very high yields from South America was critical.”

Cassava research leaps forward with new varieties to benefit farmers

GCP’s first investment phase into cassava research stimulated a sturdy injection of people, passion, knowledge and funds into the second phase of research. From the genome maps created during the first phase, some of the world’s best geneticists would now apply genomic tools and molecular breeding approaches to increase and accelerate the genetic gains during breeding, combining farmers’ favourite characteristics with strong resistances and tolerances to abiotic and biotic constraints.

In the sprawling, tropical city of Accra on Ghana’s coast, the second phase of the research was officially launched at the end of the wet season in mid-2010. NRCRI’s Emmanuel Okogbenin coordinated product delivery from the projects, but the roles of Principal Investigator for the different projects were shared between another four individuals.

These were breeder and geneticist Chiedozie Egesi (NRCRI, Nigeria), molecular geneticist Morag Ferguson (IITA), genomic scientist Pablo Rabinowicz (University of Maryland, USA) and physiologist and geneticist Alfredo Alves (Brazilian Corporation of Agricultural Research, EMBRAPA). The team shared the vision of enabling farmers to increase cassava production for cash, well beyond subsistence levels.

Photo: A Hoel/World Bank

Garri, or gari, a kind of granular cassava flour used to prepare a range of foods.

If the Accra launch set the stage for the next five years of cassava collaboration, a breakthrough in Nigeria at the end of 2010 set the pace, with the release of Africa’s first cassava variety developed using molecular-breeding techniques. “It was both disease-resistant and highly nutritious – a world-first,” recalls Emmanuel proudly.

Known as UMUCASS33 (or CR41-10), it took its high yield and nutritional value from its South American background, and incorporated Nigerian resistance to devastating CMD attacks thanks to marker-assisted selection. It was also resistant to several other pests and diseases. UMUCASS33 was swiftly followed by a stream of similar disease-busting varieties, released and supplied to farmers.

Never before had cassava research been granted such a boost of recognition, scientific might and organisational will. And never before had there been so much farmer consultation or so many on-farm trials.

“Cassava was an orphan crop and with the help of GCP it is becoming more prominent,” says Chiedozie. “GCP highlighted and enhanced cassava’s role as a major and reliable staple that is important to millions of poor Africans.”

Another important challenge for scientists was to develop a higher-yielding cassava for water-limited environments. The aim was to keep mapping genes for resistance to other diseases and pests and then combine them with favourable genetics that increase yield in drought conditions – no easy feat. Drought’s wicked effect on cassava is to limit the bulk of the tuber, or sometimes to stop the tuber forming altogether. Emmanuel led the work on marker-assisted recurrent selection for drought.

Hear from Chiedozie on the beneficial outcomes of GCP – in terms not only of variety releases but also of attracting further projects, prestige, and enthusiastic young breeders – in the video below (or on YouTube):

Many traits and many varieties

As closely as the cassava teams in Africa were working together, Chiedozie recalls that each country’s environment demanded different cassava characteristics: “We had to select for what worked best in each country, then continue with the research from there. What works fine for East Africa may not be so successful in Nigeria or Ghana”. A core reference set representing most of the diversity of cassava in Africa was improved with the addition of over 564 varieties. Improving the reference set, says project leader Morag Ferguson, “enables the capture of many diverse features of cassava” within a relatively small collection, providing a pathway for more efficient trait and gene discovery.

While mapping of cassava’s genetic makeup carried on, with a focus on drought tolerance, researchers continued to develop a suite of new varieties. They mapped out further genes that provided CMD resistance. In Tanzania, four new varieties were released that combined resistance to both CMD and CBSD – two for the coastal belt and two for the semi-arid areas of central Tanzania. These new varieties had the potential to double the yield of existing commercial varieties. In Ghana too, disease-resistant varieties were being developed.

Photo: IITA

Built-in disease resistance can make a huge difference to the health of cassava crops. This photo shows a cassava variety resistant to African cassava mosaic virus (ACMV), which causes cassava mosaic disease (CMD), growing on the left, alongside a susceptible variety on the right.

Meanwhile in Nigeria, another variety was released in 2012 with very high starch content – an essential factor in good cassava. This is a critical element to breeding any crop, explains Chiedozie: “A variety may be scientifically perfect, based on a researcher’s perspective, but farmers will not grow it if it fails the test in terms of taste, texture, colour or starchiness.”

Geoffrey Mkamilo, cassava research leader at Tanzania’s Agricultural Research Institute, Naliendele, says that farmer awareness and adoption go hand in hand. Once they had the awareness, he says, “the farmers were knocking on our doors for improved varieties. They and NGOs were knocking and calling.”

After groundwork in Ghana and Nigeria to find potential sources of resistance, cassava varieties that are resistant to bacterial blight and green mites were also developed in Tanzania and then tested. By the time GCP closed in December 2014, these varieties were on their way to commercial breeders for farmers to take up.

Scientists seeking to resolve the bigger challenge of drought resistance have achieved significant answers as well. Researchers have been able to map genetic regions that largely account for how well the crops deal with drought.

Developing new varieties takes people, and time The numbers of new cassava varieties so far released through GCP-supported research do not tell the full story.   They certainly do not illustrate the patience and skill required from many different people to get to that end-stage of having a new cassava variety. In the first step, after the plants that seem to have resistance to CMD are identified, those plants are cloned and grown.   The DNA of these plantlets is then exposed to markers specific to valuable resistance genes, or regions of the genome known as quantitative trait loci (QTLs), in order to confirm the presence of the gene or QTL in question. Confirmed plants can be used as parents in breeding crosses after growing out and flowering – although sometimes plants don’t flower, another hurdle for the cassava breeder.  This parental selection using genetic information is a powerful way to make cassava breeding more efficient. Breeders also use markers to identify which of the progeny from each cross have inherited the genes they are interested in. Over several generations of crosses, scientists can combine genes and QTLs for useful traits from different plant lines, to eventually develop a new variety for cultivation.  In cassava, this complex process can take seven years – although it takes even longer using only conventional breeding techniques. While fruition is slow, the research aided by GCP has sown the seeds for many more new varieties and bumper harvests for farmers into the future.

Hunt for ‘super powered’ cassava

The hunt was on for drought-tolerance genes in African cassava plants. The end goal was to find as many different drought-related genes as possible, then to put them all together with the applicable disease and pest resistance genes, to make a ‘super powered’ set of cassava lines. Molecular breeders call this process ‘pyramiding’, and in Ghana, Elizabeth Parkes led these projects.

With the help of Cornell University scientists, the researchers compared plants according to their starch content, how they endured a dry season, how they used sunlight and how they dealt with pests and diseases.

Fourteen gene regions or quantitative trait loci (QTLs) were identified for 10 favourable traits from the genetic material in Ghana, while nine were found for the plants in Nigeria – with two shared between the plants from both Ghana and Nigeria. After that success, the identified genes were used in breeding programmes to develop a new generation of cassava with improved productivity.

Pyramiding is important in effective disease resistance; Chiedozie explains in the video below (or on YouTube):

Photo: HarvestPlus

New cassava varieties rich in pro-vitamin A have a telltale golden hue.

The research has also delivered results in terms of Vitamin A levels in cassava. In 2011, the NRCRI team, together with IITA and HarvestPlus (another CGIAR Challenge Programme focussed on the nutritional enrichment of crops), released three cassava varieties rich in pro-vitamin A, which hold the potential to provide children under five and women of reproductive age with up to 25 percent of their daily vitamin A requirement. Since then, the team has aimed to increase this figure to 50 percent. In 2014, they released three more pro-vitamin A varieties with even higher concentrations of beta-carotene.

Photo: IITA

A field worker at IITA proudly displays a high-yielding, pro-vitamin A-rich cassava variety (right), compared with a traditional variety (left).

The new varieties developed with GCP support are worth their weight in gold, says Chiedozie: “Through these varieties, people’s livelihoods can be improved. The food people grow should be nutritious, resistant and high-yielding enough to allow them to sell some of it and make money for other things in life, such as building a house, getting a motorbike or sending their kids to school.”

Turning from Nigeria to Tanzania, Geoffrey has some remarkable numbers. He says that the national average cassava yield is 10.5 tonnes per hectare. He adds that a new cassava variety, PWANI, developed with GCP support and released in 2012, has the potential to increase yields to 51 tonnes per hectare. And they don’t stop there: the Tanzanian researchers want to produce three million cuttings and directly reach over 2,000 farmers with these new varieties, then scale up further.

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

A farmer tends her cassava field in northern Tanzania.

Cassava grows up: looking ahead to supporting African families

Emmanuel reflects on how the first release of a new disease-resistant high-yielding cassava variety took fundamental science towards tangible realities for the world’s farmers: “It was a great example of a practical application of marker technology for selecting important new traits, and it bodes well for the future as markers get fully integrated into cassava breeding.”

Emmanuel further believes that GCP’s Cassava Research Initiative has given research communities “a framework for international support from other investors to do research and development in modern breeding using genomic resources.” Evaluations have demonstrated that molecular-assisted breeding can slash between three and five years from the timeline of developing better crops.

Photo: M Perret/UN Photo

Women tend to bear most of the burden of cassava cultivation and preparation. Here a Congolese woman pounds cassava leaves – eaten in many regions in addition to cassava roots – prior to cooking a meal for her family.

But, like cassava’s long growth cycle underground, Emmanuel knows there is still a long road to maturity for cassava as a crop for Africa and in research. “Breeding is just playing with genetics, but when you’re done with that, there is still a lot to do in economics and agronomics,” he says. Revolutionising cassava is about releasing improved varieties carefully buttressed by financial incentives and marketing opportunities.

Rural women in particular stand to benefit from improved varieties – they carry most of the responsibility for producing, processing and marketing cassava. So far, Elizabeth explains: “Most women reported an increase in their household income as a result of the improved cassava, but that is still dependent on extra time spent on cassava-related tasks” – a burden which she aims to diminish.

Elizabeth emphasises that future improvement research has to take a bottom-up approach, first talking to female farmers to ensure that improved crops retain characteristics they already value in addition to the new traits. “Rural families are held together by women, so if you are able to change their lot, you can make a real mark,” she says. Morag echoes this hope: “We are just starting to implement this now in Uganda; it’s a more farmer-centric approach to breeding”. The cassava teams emphasise the importance of supporting women in science too; the Tanzanians teams are aiming for a target of 40 percent women in their training courses.

Meet Elizabeth in the podcast below (or on PodOmatic), and be inspired by her passion when it comed to women in agriculture and in science:


This direct impact goes much further than individuals, says Chiedozie. “GCP’s daring has enabled many national programmes to be self-empowered, where new avenues are unfolding for enhanced collaboration at the local, national and regional level. We’re seeing a paradigm shift.” And Chiedozie’s objectives reach in a circle back to his compatriots: “Through GCP, I’ve been able to achieve my aims of using the tools of science and technology to make the lives of poor Africans better by providing them with improved crops.”

GCP has been crucial for developing the capacity of countries to keep doing this level of research, says Chiedozie: “The developing-country programmes were never taken seriously,” he says. “But when the GCP opportunity to change this came up we seized it, and now the developing-country programmes have the boldness, capacity and visibility to do this for themselves.”

Emmanuel says his proudest moment was when GCP was looking for Africans to take up leadership roles. “They felt we could change things around and set a precedent to bring people back to the continent,” he says. “They appreciated our values and the need to install African leaders on the ground in Africa rather than in Europe, Asia or the Americas.”

“If you want to work for the people, you have to walk with the people – that’s an African concept. Then when you work with the people, you really understand what they want. When you speak, they know they can trust you.” GCP trusted and trod where others had not before, Chiedozie says.

Elizabeth agrees: “In the past, the assumption was always that ‘Africa can’t do this.’ Now, people see that when given a chance to get around circumstances – as GCP has done for us through the provision of resources, motivation, encouragement and training – Africa can achieve so much!”

More links

Photo: A Hoel/World Bank

Walking into the future: farmer Felicienne Soton in her cassava field in Benin.

Sep 242015

Hei Leung has always been passionate about diversity, especially genetic diversity, and that’s one reason why he leapt at the chance to get involved with the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP) right from its inception more than a decade ago.

Photo: IRRIBut GCP’s attraction for Hei wasn’t just about genetic diversity; it was also about working with diverse institutes and researchers. At the time, Hei had been working for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) for some 10 years, on and off, including a stint at Washington State University in the USA.

“The whole idea of the Challenge Programme was to bring people together from different places instead of an individual CGIAR Centre doing things,” he says.

Hei also saw the likely spin-offs from rice research to other crops such as wheat, maize and sorghum, which are also crucial to food security.

Rice is a ‘model crop’ because of its small genome. This means researchers in major cereals like wheat and maize, which have much bigger genomes but share genes of similar functions, can benefit from our work with rice.”

Photo: Jeffreyw/Flickr (Creative Commons)

From little pizzas great programmes grow!

It all began in 2003, over pizza, in Rome. Hei remembers that his commitment to GCP started when he met with a small group of people including Robert Zeigler, who was to become the first Director of GCP, and who is currently Director General of IRRI.

“Little did we know that pizza was so inspiring,” Hei says, recalling that it was during that meeting that they agreed on the name: the Generation Challenge Programme.

GCP was formally launched in 2004 in Brisbane, Australia, at the 4th International Crop Science Congress.

Making the Programme ‘pro-poor’

Hei was initially involved with GCP as Subprogramme Leader for Comparative Genomics for Gene Discovery between 2004 and 2007, and later as a Principal Investigator for the Rice Research Initiative. Taking on his leadership role, Hei recognised from the start that many crops important to developing communities in Asia and Africa needed to become more drought-tolerant because of the increasing effects of climate change.

“We wanted to have a programme that is what we call ‘pro-poor’,” he says. “The majority of the world’s people depend on crops such as rice, wheat and maize for food.”

“I always feel that if you can solve eastern India’s problems, you can solve most of the problems in the world,” Hei adds. “If you travel in eastern India, you can see climate change happening day in, day out. You don’t have to wait 10 years or 50 years; it’s happening already. They either have too much or too little water. It’s a high-stress environment.”

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Women at work threshing rice near Sangrur, Punjab, India.

Rice is the world’s most widely consumed cereal crop, and is particularly important as the staple food of 2.4 billion people in Asia. GCP recognised rice’s importance and invested almost USD 29.5 million in rice research and development.

Furthermore, the genetic breeding lessons learnt from rice can also be applied to other staple crops such as wheat, maize and sorghum.

Other GCP-supported researchers used comparative genetics to determine if the same or similar genes – for example, the phosphorus starvation tolerance (PSTOL1) protein kinase gene found in rice – was also present and operating in the same manner in sorghum and maize.

They found sorghum and maize varieties that contained genes, similar to rice’s PSTOL1, that also conferred tolerance to phosphorus-deficient soils by enhancing the plant’s root system. They were then able to develop molecular markers to help breeders in Brazil and Africa to identify lines with these genes, which can now be used in breeding and developed as varieties for farmers growing crops, particularly in acidic soils.

Seeing the potential for novel researcher interactions

Hei also recognised that crops that received less scientific attention but remained important as regional staple foods, such as bananas and plantains (of the genus Musa), could benefit from comparative genomics research.

“We had a highly motivated group of researchers willing to devote their efforts to Musa,” remembers Hei, who is currently IRRI Program Leader of Genetic Diversity and Gene Discovery.

“GCP’s community could offer a framework for novel interactions among banana-related actors and players working on other crops, such as rice. So, living up to its name as a Challenge Programme, GCP decided to take the gamble on banana genomics and help it fly.”

Photo:  Asian Development Bank

A banana farmer at work in the Philippines.

However, after four years, Hei found it difficult to maintain his GCP leadership role as well as keep on top of his IRRI work: “They said I was 50 percent with IRRI and 50 percent with GCP, but it is never like that in reality. I was always doing two jobs, or at least one-and-a-half jobs, and I didn’t think I was doing a good enough job for either. I thought it was time for other people to come into GCP.”

While Hei stepped down from a leadership role, he remained active working on GCP projects throughout the life of the Programme.

Hei says that during the last five years of GCP, a lot of technology to characterise genetic diversity evolved “to bring high-quality science to accelerate our mission to help the poor areas of Asia and Africa.”

Streamlining GCP reporting: from three reports a year down to just one One of the things that initially bothered Hei during his GCP time was the reporting requirements: “I remember we used to ask people to submit a mid-year report, end-of-year report and an update. “So I stuck my neck out during the last couple of years, and I said: ‘Guys, stop it. Don’t ask for these reports. They become mechanical. People just fill in the blanks. Ask for just one report before or after our annual meeting: just one report that people are excited to write about. And that was adopted.”

A MAGIC affair

The development of MAGIC (multi-parent advanced generation intercross) populations is the project that Hei gets most excited about. From these populations, created by crossing different combinations of multiple parents, plant lines can be selected that have useful characteristics such as drought tolerance, salinity tolerance and the ability to produce better quality grain.

“Now many crop breeders are calling for MAGIC populations,” says Hei. “I feel proud that at GCP we decided to support this concept and activity. This is one of GCP’s most important legacies and it’s one of my most favourite things.”

Photo: IRRI

Hei Leung looking relaxed in the lab at IRRI.

Honoured as a Fellow of the American Phytopathological Society (APS), Hei is recognised “for his leadership in the international community toward building and distributing rice genetic and genomic resources and creating capacity in plant pathology in the developing countries of Asia.”

Hei’s GCP leadership and research have clearly provided him with an important platform for taking on leadership and champion roles linking many individuals and organisations across Asia and Africa. His ASP profile concludes: “His promotion of collaborative research and his leadership in such programmes in the developing world have contributed to the building of a dynamic research community that promotes both basic knowledge and food security for Asia and the world.”

Making a difference to food security and farmer’s lives in developing countries is what GCP is all about. Such differences have been made possible through collaborative links that connect a diversity of organisations and people with the latest research in genetic diversity and breeding techniques.

Photo: IRRI

A farmer transplants rice in the Philippines.

It’s amore!

hei quoteHei recalls his personal and professional journey with GCP with much affection: “I think that it has been a wonderful scientific journey in terms of knowing the science and opening up my mind to being more receptive to alternative ways of doing things.

“There have been so many friends I have met through networking with GCP. Sometimes you go through bumpy roads, but anything you do will have bumpy times. And it’s very unusual to have a programme so illuminating. We honoured our commitment to finish in 10 years. It is a programme that had a fresh start and a clean ending.

“Most importantly, GCP has enabled plant breeders to embrace cutting-edge science through partnerships that focused on improving crop yields in areas previously deemed unproductive,” he says. “GCP is unique, one-of-a-kind, and I love it!”

More links

Jun 192015
Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Bean Market in Kampala, Uganda.

Common beans are the world’s most important food legume, particularly for subsistence and smallholder farmers in East and Southern Africa. They are a crucial source of protein, are easy to grow, are very adaptable to different cropping systems, and mature quickly.

To some, beans are ‘a near-perfect food’ because of their high protein and fibre content plus their complex carbohydrates and other nutrients. One cup of beans provides at least half the recommended daily allowance of folate, or folic acid – a B vitamin that is especially important for pregnant women to prevent birth defects. One cup also supplies 25–30 percent of the daily requirement of iron, 25 percent of that of magnesium and copper, and 15 percent of the potassium and zinc requirement.

Unfortunately, yields in Africa are well below their potential – between 20 and 30 percent below. The main culprit is drought, which affects 70 percent of Africa’s major bean-producing regions. Drought is especially severe in the mid-altitudes of Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe, as well as across Southern Africa.

“For the past seven or eight years, rains have been very unreliable in central and northern Malawi,” says Virginia Chisale, a bean breeder with Malawi’s Department of Agricultural Research and Technical Services.

“In the past, rains used to be very reliable and people were able to know the right time to plant to meet the rains in critical conditions,” she says. “Now these primary agriculture regions are either not receiving rain for long periods of time, or rains are not falling at the right time.”

Virginia recounts that during the 2011/12 cropping season there were no rains soon after planting, when it is important that beans receive moisture. Such instances can cut bean yields by half.

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Steve Beebe in the field.

“Drought is a recurrent problem of rainfed agriculture throughout the world,” says Steve Beebe, a leading bean breeder with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). “Since over 80 percent of the world’s cultivated lands are rainfed, drought stress has major implications for global economy and trade.”

Steve was the Product Delivery Coordinator for the beans component of the Legumes Research Initiative (RI), part of Phase II of the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP). The RI incorporated several projects, the biggest of which was Tropical Legumes I (TLI) (see box). The main objective of the work on beans within TLI was to identify and develop drought-tolerant varieties using marker-assisted breeding techniques. The resulting new varieties were then evaluated for their performance in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe.

“It’s vital that we develop high-yielding drought-tolerant varieties so as to help farmers, particularly in developing countries, adapt to drought and produce sustained yields for their families and local economies,” says Steve.

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 beans within TLI was coordinated by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). The partners in the four target countries were Ethiopia’s South Agricultural Research Institute (SARI), the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (now known as the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization, KALRO), Malawi’s Department of Agricultural Research and Technical Services (DARTS) and Zimbabwe’s Crop Breeding Institute (CBI) of the Department of Research and Specialist Services (DR&SS). Cornell University in the USA was also a partner. Tropical Legumes II (TLII) was a sister project to TLI, led by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) on behalf of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and 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 translating them into breeding materials for the ultimate benefit of resource-poor farmers. Many partners in TLI also worked on projects in TLII.

For an overview of the work on beans from the perspectives of four different partners, watch our video below, “The ABCs of bean breeding”.

What makes a plant drought tolerant?

The question of what makes a plant drought tolerant is one that breeders have debated for centuries. No single plant characteristic or trait can be fully responsible for protecting the plant from the stress of intense heat and reduced access to water.

“It’s a difficult question to answer for any plant, including beans,” says Steve. “Once you do isolate a trait genetically, it can often be difficult to identify this trait in a plant in the field, for example, identifying the architecture and length of a plant’s roots.”

Phenotyping is an important process in conventional plant breeding. It involves identifying and measuring the presence of physical traits such as seed colour, pod size, stem thickness or root length. Gathering data about a range of such characteristics across a number of different plant lines helps breeders decide which plants to use as parents in crosses and which of the progeny have inherited useful traits.

Root length has long been thought of as a drought-tolerance trait: the longer the root, the more chance it has of tapping into moisture stored deeper in the soil profile.

Given, however, that it is difficult to inspect root length in the field, researchers at CIAT have been exploring other more accessible drought-tolerance traits they can more easily identify and measure. One of these is measuring the weight of the plants’ seeds.

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Comparison between varieties in trials of drought tolerant beans at CIAT’s headquarters in Colombia.

Fat beans indicate plants coping with drought stress

“We measure seed weight because we are discovering that under drought stress, drought-tolerant bean varieties will divert sugars from their leaves, stems and pods to their seed,” says Steve. “We call this trait ‘pod filling’, and for us it is the most important drought-tolerance trait to be found over the last several years.”

Finding bean plants with larger, heavier seeds when growing under drought conditions indicates that the plants are coping well, and means farmers’ yields are maintained.

As part of GCP’s Legumes RI, African partners like Virginia have been measuring the seed weight of several advanced breeding lines, which can be used as parents to develop new varieties. These breeding lines have been bred by CIAT and demonstrate this pod-filling process and consequent tolerance of drought.

Although this measurement is relatively cheap and easy for breeders all over the world to do, Steve and his team are interested in finding an even more efficient way to spot plants that maintain full pods under drought.

“We are trying to understand which genes control this trait so we can use molecular-assisted breeding techniques to determine when the trait is present,” says Steve. Having identified several regions of genes related to pod filling, he and his team have developed molecular markers to help breeders identify which plants have these desired genes. “The use of molecular markers in selection significantly reduces the time and cost of the breeding process, making it more efficient. This means that we get improved varieties out to farmers more quickly.”

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Bean farmer in Rwanda.

Molecular markers (also known as DNA markers) are used by researchers as ‘flags’ to identify particular genes within a plant’s genome (DNA) that control desired traits, such as drought tolerance. These markers are themselves fragments of DNA that highlight particular genes or regions of genes by binding near them.

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 (genes), making it easier and quicker to identify whether or not they are present.

Photo: J D'Amour/HarvestPlus

Beans from Rwanda.

Plant breeders can use molecular markers from early on in the breeding process to choose parents for their crosses and determine whether progeny they have produced have the desired trait, based on testing only a small amount of seed or seedling tissue.

“If the genes are present, we grow the progeny and conduct the appropriate phenotyping; if not, we throw the progeny away,” explains Steve. “This saves us resources and time because we need to grow and phenotype only the few hundred progeny which we know have the desired genes, instead of a few thousand progeny, most of which would not possess the gene.”

Outsourcing genotyping to the UK Steve says a significant contribution made by GCP was facilitating a deal with a private UK company (LGC Genomics, formerly KBioscience) that is able to quickly and cheaply genotype leaf samples sent to them by African breeders. The company then forwards the data to the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), who analyse it and let the breeders in Africa know which progeny contain the desired genes and are suitable for breeding, and which ones to throw away.  “The whole process takes roughly four weeks, but saves the breeders the time and effort to grow all progeny,” says Steve. “This system works well for countries that don’t have the capacity or know-how to do the molecular work,” says Darshna Vyas, a plant genetics specialist with LGC Genomics. “Genotyping has advanced to a point where even larger labs around the world choose to outsource their genotyping work, as it is cheaper and quicker than if they were to equip their lab and do it themselves. We do hundreds of thousands of genotyping samples a day – day in, day out. It’s our business.”

GCP has supported this foundation work, building on the extensive bean research already done by CIAT dating back to the 1970s, to develop molecular markers not only for drought-tolerance traits such as pod filling, but also for traits associated with resistance to important insect and disease menaces.

“Under drought conditions, plants become more susceptible to pests and diseases, so it was important that we also try to identify and include resistance traits in the drought-tolerant progeny,” says Steve.

Drought is but one plant stressor – diseases and pests wreak havoc too

Photo: W Arinaitwe/CIAT/PABRA

Common bacterial blight on bean.

The bean diseases that farmers in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe continually confront are angular leaf spot, bean common mosaic virus, common bacterial blight and rust. Key insect pests are bean stem maggot and aphids.

“We’ve had reports of bean stem maggot and bean common mosaic virus wiping out a whole field of beans,” says Virginia. “Although angular leaf spot and common bacterial blight are not as damaging, they can still reduce yields by over 50 percent.”

Virginia says this is devastating for farmers in Malawi, many of whom only have enough land and money to grow beans to feed their families and sell what little excess there is at market to purchase other necessities.

“This is why we are excited by the prospect of developing not just drought-tolerant varieties, but drought-tolerant varieties with disease and pest resistance as well,” says Virginia.

Virginia’s team in Malawi – along with other breeders in Ethiopia, Kenya and Zimbabwe – are currently using over 200 Mesoamerican and Andean bean breeding lines supplied by CIAT to help breed for drought tolerance and disease and pest resistance. Although many do not yet have the capacity to do molecular breeding in their countries, thanks to advances in plant science it is becoming more feasible and cheaper to outsource molecular breeding stages of the process (see box above).

“With help from GCP and CIAT, we have successfully crossed a line from CIAT with some local varieties to produce plants that are high yielding and resistant to most common bean diseases,” Virginia says.

Photo: ILRI

Malawian farmer Jinny Lemson grows beans to feed her livestock.

Ethiopia’s new bean breeders

Photo: ILRI

Young women sorting beans after a harvest in Ethiopia.

One man who has been helping build this new breeding capacity is Bodo Raatz, a molecular geneticist who joined CIAT and GCP’s Legumes RI in late 2011.

“We’ve [CIAT] hosted several African PhD students here in Colombia and have conducted several workshops in Colombia and Africa too,” says Bodo.

“At the workshops we teach local breeders and technicians how to use genetic tools and markers for advanced breeding methods, phenotyping and data management. The more people there are who can do this work, the quicker new varieties will filter through to farmers.”

Bodo says he has found delivering the training both personally and professionally rewarding, especially “seeing the participants understand the concepts and start using the tools and techniques to develop new lines [of bean varieties] and contribute to the project.”

One national breeder whom Bodo has seen advance from the training is Daniel Ambachew, then a bean breeder at the Southern Agricultural Research Institute (SARI) in Ethiopia.

Daniel started as a GCP-funded Master’s student enrolled at Haramaya University, Ethiopia, evaluating bean varieties with both tolerance to drought and resistance to bean stem maggot. He eventually became the Ethiopian project leader for beans within GCP’s Legumes RI.

“Daniel is currently one of only a handful of bean breeders in Ethiopia who are using molecular-assisted breeding techniques to breed new varieties,” says Bodo. “It’s quite an achievement, especially now that he has taken on the lead role in Ethiopia.”

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Buying and selling at a bean market in Kampala, Uganda.

For Daniel, learning about and using the new molecular-breeding techniques has been an exciting new challenge. “The most interesting part of the technology is that it helps us understand what is going on in the plant at a molecular level and lets us know if the crosses we are making are successful and the genes we want are present,” says Daniel. “All this helps improve our efficiency and speeds up the time it takes us to breed and release new varieties for farmers.”

By the end of 2014, Daniel and his team had finished the third year of trials and had several drought-tolerant lines ready for national trials in 2015 and eventual release in 2016.

Between 2012 and 2014, Daniel, and two other breeders from SARI, attended GCP’s three-year Integrated Breeding Multiyear Course, learning how to design molecular-assisted breeding trials; collect, analyse and interpret genotypic and phenotypic data from the trials; and manage data using the GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP), particularly its Breeding Management System (BMS).

“The IBP is a really fantastic tool,” says Daniel. “During the course we learnt about the importance of recording clear and consistent phenotypic data, and the IBP helps us to do this as well as store it in a database. It makes it easier to refer to and learn from the past. I’m now trying to pass on the knowledge I’ve learnt as well as create and implement a data-management policy for all plant breeders and technicians in our institute.”

Bodo agrees with Daniel about the importance of IBP and believes it will be a true legacy of GCP beyond the Programme’s end in 2014. “The Platform has been designed to be the main data-management platform for plant breeders. It allows breeders to talk the same language and will reduce the need for learning new systems.”

Daniel says the challenge for his institute now is to build further capacity among staff – and to retain it. “At the moment we only have two bean breeders,” says Daniel. “It’s hard to retain research staff in Ethiopia as salaries are very low, so people move on to new, higher paying positions when they get the chance. It’s not unique to Ethiopia, but true of all Africa.”

Photo: O Thiong'o/CIAT/PABRA

Bean trials at KALRO in Kenya.

Kenya chasing higher bean yields

Across the border, Kenya has also been facing staffing issues.

“We are behind Ethiopia, Malawi and Zimbabwe in terms of our capacity and our trials,” says David Karanja, a bean breeder and project leader at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO, formerly the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, or KARI). “At the start of the project, we didn’t have a breeder to lead the project for almost two years. However, we are now rapidly catching up with the others.”

And it’s a good thing too, as the country is in need of higher yielding beans to accommodate its population’s insatiable appetite for the crop. Out of the four target African countries, Kenya is the largest bean producer and consumer. As such, the country relies on beans imports from Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda.

“A lot of families eat beans every day,” says David. “On average, the population eats 14–16 kilograms per person each year, but in western Kenya the average is over 60 kilograms.”


Githeri, a Kenyan staple food made with maize and beans.

Kenyans consume an average total of 400,000 tonnes of beans each year, consistently more than the country produces. Projected trends in population growth indicate that this demand for beans will continue to increase by three to four percent annually.

Even though the area planted to beans has been increasing, David says farmers and breeders need to work together to improve productivity, which is well below where it should be. “The national average yield is 100 kilograms per hectare, which can range from 50 kilograms up to 700 kilograms, depending on whether we experience a drought, or a pest or disease epidemic,” explains David. “The minimum target we should be aiming for is 1,200 kilograms per hectare.”

Such a figure may seem impossible, but David believes that new breeding techniques and the varieties KALRO are producing with the help of CIAT are providing hope that farmers can reach these lofty goals.

“We have several bean lines that are showing good potential to produce higher yields under drought conditions and also have resistance to diseases like rust and mosaic virus,” says David. “They are currently under national trials, and we are confident these will be released to farmers in 2015.”

Photo: O Thiong'o/CIAT/PABRA

Varieties fare differently in KALRO bean trials in Kenya.

Commercialising beans

Photo: CIAT

Maturing bean pods.

“Many subsistence farmers have limited access to good quality bean seeds; they lack knowledge of good crop, pest and disease management; and they have poor post-harvest storage facilities,” says Godwill Makunde, who was previously a breeder at Zimbabwe’s Crop Breeding Institute (CBI) and leader of GCP’s Legumes RI bean project in Zimbabwe.

TLI’s sister project, Tropical Legumes II (TLII, see box above), led by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), provided the route by which the upstream work of TLI would have impact in helping these farmers, seeking to deliver the new varieties developed under TLI into their hands. As part of TLII, Godwill, his successor Bruce Mutari, and other African partners worked on developing sustainable seed systems.

“Because beans are self-pollinating, which means each crop is capable of producing seed exactly as it was sown, farmers tend to propagate seed on farm,” says Godwill. “While this can be cost effective, it can reduce farmers’ access to higher yielding, tolerant lines, like the ones we are currently producing.”

In none of the partner countries of TLI and TLII are there formal systems for producing and disseminating bean seeds. Godwill and other partners are working with seed companies on developing a sustainable model where both farmers and seed companies can benefit.

Success built on a solid foundation

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Field workers tend beans in Rwanda.

A key to the success of the beans component of GCP’s Legumes RI, according to Ndeye Ndack Diop, GCP’s Capacity Building Theme Leader and TLI Project Manager, has been partners’ existing relationships with each other.

“Many of the partners are part of a very strong network of bean breeders: the Bean Coordinated Agricultural Project [BeanCAP],” explains Ndeye Ndack, adding that the TLI and BeanCAP networks benefited each other.

BeanCAP released more than 1,500 molecular markers to TLI researchers, which have helped broaden the genetic tools available to developing-country bean breeders.

TLI was also able to leverage and advance previous BeanCAP work and networks. For example, it was through this collaboration that GCP was introduced to LGC Genomics, a company it then worked with on many other crop projects.

To sustain integrated breeding practices beyond the Programme’s close in 2014, GCP established Communities of Practice (CoPs) that are discipline- and commodity-oriented.

“GCP’s CoP for beans has also helped to broaden both the TLI and BeanCAP networks too,” says Ndeye Ndack. “The ultimate goal of the CoPs is to provide a platform for community problem solving, idea generation and information sharing.”

Developing physical capacity

Besides developing human capacity, GCP has also invested in developing infrastructure in Ethiopia, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

SARI now has an irrigation system to enable them to conduct drought trials year round. “We have 12.5 hectares of irrigation now, which we use to increase our efficiency and secure our research,” says Daniel. “We can also increase seed with this irrigation during the off-season and develop early generation seeds for seed producers.”

In Zimbabwe, CBI received specialised equipment that enables them to extract DNA and send it for genotyping in the UK.

Both SARI and CBI also received automatic weather stations from GCP for high-precision climatic data capture, with automated data loading and sharing with other partners in the network.

Delivering the right beans to farmers

Back in Malawi, Virginia says another important facet of the TLII project is that researchers understand what qualities farmers want in their beans. “It’s no use developing higher yielding beans if the farmer doesn’t like the colour, or they don’t taste nice,” she says. “For example, consumers in central Malawi prefer khaki or ‘sugar beans’, which are tan with brown, black or red speckles. While those in southern Malawi tend to prefer red beans. Farmers know this and will grow beans that they know consumers will want.”

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Diversity at bean market in Masaka, Uganda.

Breeders in all four countries have been conducting workshops and small trials with farmers to find out this information. In Kenya, David finds farmer participation a great way to promote the work they are doing and show the impact the new drought-tolerant and disease-resistant lines can have.

“Farmers are excited and want to grow these varieties immediately when they see for themselves the difference in yield these new varieties can produce compared to their regular varieties,” says David. “They understand the pressure on them to produce more yields and are grateful that these varieties are becoming more readily available as well as tailored to their needs.”

For Steve, such anecdotes provide him and his collaborators with incentives to continue their quest to discover more molecular markers associated with drought tolerance, post-GCP.

“It’s a testament to everyone involved that we have been able to develop these advanced lines with pod-filling traits using molecular techniques, and make them available to farmers in six years instead of ten,” says Steve.

More links

Jun 162015
Ripening barley.

Ripening barley.

Barley is thought to have been one of the first crops ever cultivated by humankind. This is largely because it is a tough plant able to withstand dry and salty conditions. Its fortitude is especially important for the small land-holders living on the fringes of deserts in West Asia and North Africa, where it is “the last crop grown before the desert,” says Dr Michael Baum, who led barley research for the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP).

Michael, who is Director of the Biodiversity and Integrated Gene Management Programme at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), says one of the GCP’s first tasks was to find where the useful genes were in wild barley.

“Looking at wild barley is especially important for low-input agriculture, such as is found in developing countries,” he says. “Wild barley grows in, and is very adapted to, the harsh conditions at the edge of the deserts in the Fertile Crescent of West Asia: Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Turkey.”

In some regions, wild barley produces an even higher yield of grain when there is a drought. And this was the kind of useful trait that GCP researchers were looking for in their work on barley during the first phase of GCP, when the internationally funded Programme set out to enhance genetic stocks and plant-breeding skills that will help developing nations cope with increasingly extreme drought conditions.

Signs of barley being domesticated and grown for human use in the Fertile Crescent date back to more than 8,000 BCE. It was a staple cereal of ancient Egypt, where it was used to make bread and beer.  The Fertile Crescent is a crescent-shaped region containing comparatively moist and fertile land within otherwise arid and semiarid West Asia and the Nile Valley and Nile Delta of Northeast Africa. The modern-day countries with significant territory within the Crescent are Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Syria; it also includes the southeastern fringe of Turkey and the western fringes of Iran.  Today barley is an important crop for many of these countries, and while production in many other parts of the world is declining it is increasing in this region. Worldwide, barley is grown in more than 100 countries, yielding more than 120 million tonnes a year for food, livestock feed and beer production. This makes it the world’s fourth most important cereal crop, after maize, rice and wheat.

Barley a ‘chosen one’ for research

Photo: Peter Haden/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Preparing barley in Ethiopia.

During its first five years, GCP chose barley as one of its focus crops as advances had already been made in understanding its genetic makeup and in using new molecular plant-breeding technologies to find and incorporate useful genes into barley varieties.

“At the same time, we needed to find the genes or characteristics we did not want in cultivated barley so we could avoid these traits,” says Michael. “This includes the way wild barley disperses its seed when its brittle spikes shatter. Domesticated barley has non-shattering spikes, making it much easier to harvest.”

Resource-poor farmers mostly grow barley in poor environments, where yields of key crops are chronically low, and crop failures are common. Resilient, high-yielding varieties could make a big difference to livelihoods.

Farmers in Central and West Asia and North Africa (CWANA) plant more than five million hectares of barley each year, where it is largely used as feed for the sheep and goats that are the main source of meat, milk and milk products for rural populations. In these environments, barley grain is harvested only two to three times over a five-year period. In years when it is too dry, sheep are sent into the barley field to graze on the straw.

Barley grain is used as animal feed, malt and human food. Barley straw is used as animal feed, for animal bedding and for roofing huts. In many developing countries, livestock graze on the stubble after barley is harvested. Barley is also used for green grazing or is cut before maturity and either directly fed to animals or used for silage. In the highlands of Tibet, Nepal, Ethiopia, Eritrea, in the Andean countries and in North Africa, barley is also an important food source.

Barley-based livestock system on marginal drylands in Morocco.

Barley-based livestock system on marginal drylands in Morocco.

Finding the clues to help breeders select barley’s best DNA

Photo: Dave Shea/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Malted barley.

The quest for better barley varieties – those that yield more, have more protein, can resist pests and diseases and can tolerate drought – means understanding what genes for what characteristics are available to plant breeders.

With 2,692 different barley accessions (or genetically different types of barley) in the ICARDA collection, from 84 different countries, this is no mean feat. GCP-supported researchers selected seed from 1,000 of the most promising accessions and planted single plants, whose seed was then ‘fingerprinted’, or genotyped, according to its DNA composition.

“From this, we selected 300 different barley lines that represented 90 percent of all the different characteristics of barley,” says Michael.

“This [reference set] is really good for someone new to barley. By looking at 300 lines they are seeing the diversity of almost 3,000 lines without any duplication,” he says. “This is much better and quicker for a plant breeder.”

The reference set of 300 barley lines is now available to plant breeders through the ICARDA gene bank.

Morocco researchers use GCP barley reference set to improve food security In Morocco, barley is the second most important cereal after wheat. Farmers produce about 1.3 million tonnes a year from a cultivated area of almost 1.9 million hectares. In this North African country, barley is used as food as well as for animal feed. It plays an important role in food security, as the per capita barley consumption is the highest in the world. However, production is constrained by diseases, pests, and stresses such as drought, and climate change has further aggravated the problem. Morocco imports cereals to meet its domestic demand.  Moroccan varieties of barley have a narrow genetic base, making it difficult to breed better varieties. In this context, the GCP barley reference set was introduced to Morocco from ICARDA and used in the breeding programme. “This has helped my country to develop new varieties,” says Fouad Abbad Andaloussi, Head of the Plant Protection Department at L'Institut National De La Recherche Agronomique (INRA; National Institute for Agricultural Research). “GCP has also greatly enhanced my personal scientific contacts and helped me to explore new developments in plant genetics and biotechnology.”


Barley growing on experimental fields in Morocco.

Checking out the effects of the environment on gene expression

Photo: World Bank Photo Collection

Harvesting barley in Nepal.

It’s not enough to discover what genes are present in different varieties of barley. It’s also important to understand how these genes express themselves in terms of barley’s yield, quality (especially protein content) and adaptation to stresses such as drought when grown in different environments.

To make this happen, GCP improved collaboration across research centres. This increased the probability of relatively quick advances in identifying new traits and opportunities to improve barley varieties for the poorer farmers of CWANA.

GCP funded a collaborative project between ICARDA and researchers in Australia (the University of Adelaide and the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics), Italy (l’Università degli Studi di Udine) and Syria (Tishreen University) to apply a new method, analysing allele-specific expression (ASE), to understand how genes express themselves in barley, using experimental hybrid plants (cultivated plants crossed with wild barley plants). Over three years, the collaboration tested 30 genes and 10 gene-cross combinations and found that there were changes in genetic expression when plants were grown in drought conditions.

“This is a project we could not have done without the partners in the GCP collaboration,” says Michael. “We gained important insights into how genes are regulated and how gene expression changes under different environmental conditions, such as drought, or during growth stages, such as early plant development or grain filling. We published our results in a high-impact journal [The Plant Journal (2009) 59(1):14–26], which was a great outcome for a project with such a limited timespan.”

This project was designed not so much for the practical plant breeder, but for those using molecular-breeding technologies where it is important to understand that there is a change in the expression of genes over the lifetime of a plant. “This affects the selection of genes for breeding programmes,” says Michael.

Barley: Food of gladiators Barley contains about 75 percent carbohydrate, 9 percent protein and 2 percent fat. Barley grain is rich in zinc (up to 50 ppm), iron (up to 60 ppm) and soluble fibres and has a higher content of Vitamins A and E than other major cereals. Barley has been documented as a high-energy food since the Roman times, when the gladiators were called ‘hordearii’, meaning barley men or barley eaters, because they were fed a barley diet before going to an arena to fight. Some varieties of barley are also remarkably high in protein. For example, some Ethiopian varieties have up to 18 percent protein.

Photo: Peter Haden/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Preparing barley in Ethiopia.

Making the most of wild barley

Photo: Rahel Jaskow/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Wild barley in flower.

Once some of the fundamental research into barley’s building blocks had been done, GCP revisited the potential of wild barley, with the aim to identify specific DNA that increased or decreased drought tolerance.

“Whenever you can’t find the characteristics you are looking for in a cultivated crop, you go back to look again at the wild varieties,” says Michael.

Once again, a collaborative effort – this time between ICARDA, the Scottish Crop Research Institute (since renamed to the James Hutton Institute), the University of California, Riverside, the University of Oregon and Chile’s Instituto de Investigaciones Agropecuarias (INIA; Agricultural Research Institute) – was the key to success.

Joanne Russell from the James Hutton Institute says success came when “we combined the power of genomics with a unique population of 140 barley lines to identify segments of the donor genome that confer drought tolerance”.

The barley lines were composed of an advanced elite genetic background combined with introduced segments of DNA from wild barley that came from the Fertile Crescent.

“We were successful in identifying parts of the DNA from hybrid plants that confer a significant increase in yield under drought,” says Joanne.

Leader of this GCP project from the James Hutton Institute, Professor Robbie Waugh, adds that GCP provided a unique opportunity for their laboratory to interact with international colleagues on a project focussed on improving the plight of some of the world’s poorest subsistence farmers.

“The genetic technologies we had developed prior to the GCP project starting were, at the time, state of the art – even in the more developed world,” says Robbie. “Our ability to then apply these technologies to wild barley genetic material from ICARDA and to varieties derived from wild × cultivated crosses allowed us to learn a lot about patterns of genetic and phenotypic variation in the wider barley gene pool.

“Indeed, we are still working on one of the genetic populations of barley that we studied in the GCP program, now using sophisticated phenotyping tools and approaches to explore how genes in defined segments of the wild barley genome help provide yield stability under drought conditions through architectural variation in the root system.”

Photo: Richard Weil/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Women harvesting barley in India.

GCP builds genetic resources through ongoing collaboration

Photo: Diana Prichard/ (Creative Commons)

Barley in rural Ethiopia.

For Michael, one of the most important outcomes of the GCP work was the ability to meet and work with researchers from other centres across the world.

“Before GCP, I had only visited two other CGIAR centres,” he says. “GCP was the first attempt to develop a programme across the CGIAR centres and to work on a specific topic, which was genetic resources. I would give GCP high marks for stimulating this cross-centre cooperation, particularly through their annual GCP meeting.”

And when the decision came to end barley research after the first phase of GCP, Michael found that he missed the GCP meetings: “I would have found it useful if I could have continued to attend the annual meetings,” he says. “These were much more important to me than getting the project funding out of GCP.”

Despite this and despite dealing with the challenge that some countries, such as China, were unable to provide the barley germplasm (samples of materials) that they initially promised, Michael has continued his relationships with some of the people he first met through GCP. “I’m still collaborating with China through a continuous bilateral effort on barley. Ten years later, the collaborations are still ongoing. Often when a project finishes, the collaboration finishes, but we are still continuing our collaboration on barley.”

Most importantly, Michael believes the GCP-supported and -funded collaborations brought a new approach to providing plant genetic resources to breeders. “The reference sets we assembled for barley and other crops provided a new way to look at large germplasm collections,” he says.

“This was one aim of GCP: about how to have a more rational look at germplasm collections. Now plant breeders don’t have to ask for five to ten thousand accessions of a crop, and then spend several years on evaluation.

“Now they have a higher chance of finding the genetic characteristics they want more quickly from the much smaller reference collection.”

And although the reference-set approach has been further refined since GCP’s first phase of research concluded, Michael believes it builds on what GCP started through its collaborative teams, with barley being just one example.

“GCP helped make it all happen,” he says.

For research and breeding products, see the GCP Product Catalogue and search for barley.

Photo: Oleksii Leonov/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Field of barley.

Jun 122015
Photo: IITA

Growing cowpea pods.

Each year, millions of people in Senegal go hungry for several months, many surviving on no more than one meal a day. Locals call this time soudure – the hungry period. It typically lasts from June through to September, when previous winter and spring cereal supplies are exhausted and people wait anxiously for a bountiful autumn cereal harvest.

During this period, a bowl of fresh green cowpea pods once a day is the best that many people can hope for. Cowpeas are the first summer crop to mature, with some varieties ready to harvest in as little as 60 days.

While cowpeas provide valued food security in Africa, yields remain low. In Senegal, average cowpea yields are 450 kilograms per hectare, a mere 10–30 percent of their potential. This poor productivity is primarily because of losses due to insects and diseases, but is sometimes further compounded by chronic drought.

In 2007, the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP) brought together a team of plant breeders and geneticists from Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal and the USA to collaborate on cowpea. Their goal was to breed varieties that would be higher yielding, drought tolerant and resistant to pests and diseases, and so help secure and improve local cowpea production in sub-Saharan African countries.

Photo: IITA

A trader selling cowpea at Bodija market, Ibadan, Nigeria.

Cowpea production – almost all of it comes from Africa

A type of legume originating in West Africa, cowpeas are also known as niébé in francophone Africa and as black-eyed peas in the USA.  They are well adapted to drier, warmer regions and grow well in poor soils. In Africa, they are mostly grown in the hot, drought-prone savannas and very arid sub-Saharan regions, often together with pearl millet and sorghum.

Nutritionally, cowpeas are a major source of dietary protein in many developing countries. Young leaves, unripe pods and peas are used as vegetables, and the mature grain is processed for various snacks and main meal dishes. As a cash crop, both for grain and animal fodder, cowpea is highly valued in sub-Saharan Africa.

Worldwide, an estimated 14.5 million hectares of land is planted with cowpea each year. Global production of dried cowpeas in 2010 was 5.5 million tonnes, 94 percent of which was grown in Africa.

“In Senegal, cowpeas cover more than 200,000 hectares,” says Ndiaga Cissé, cowpea breeder at L’institut sénégalais de recherches agricoles (ISRA; Senegalese Agricultural Research Institute). “This makes it the second most grown legume in Senegal, after groundnuts.”

In 2011, Senegal experienced its third drought within a decade. Low and erratic rainfall led to poor harvests in 2011 and 2012: yields of cereal crops (wheat, barley and maize) fell by 36 percent compared to 2010. Consequently, the hungry period in 2012 started three months earlier than usual, making gap-fillers like cowpea even more important. In fact, cereal production in sub-Saharan African countries has not seen substantial growth over the last two decades – total area, yield and production grew by only 4.3 percent, 1.5 percent and 5.8 percent, respectively.

Climate change is expected to further compound this situation across sub-Saharan Africa. Droughts are forecast to occur more frequently, weakening plants and making them more vulnerable to pests and diseases.

“Improved varieties of cowpeas are urgently needed to narrow the gap between actual and potential yields,” says Ndiaga. “They will not only provide security to farmers in the face of climate change, but will also help with food security and overall livelihoods.”

Photo: IITA

Farmers in Northern Nigeria transport their cowpea harvest.

Mapping the cowpea genome

For over 30 years, Phil Roberts, a professor in the Department of Nematology at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), has been breeding new varieties of cowpea. “UCR has a long history of research in cowpea breeding that goes back to the mid-seventies,” explains Phil. “One of the reasons we were commissioned by GCP in 2007 was to use our experience, particularly in using molecular breeding, to help African cowpea-breeding programmes produce higher yielding cowpeas.”

For seven years, Phil and his team at UCR coordinated the cowpea component of the Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project led by GCP (see box below).  The objective of this work was to advance cowpea breeding by applying modern, molecular breeding techniques, tools and knowledge to develop lines and varieties with drought tolerance and resistance to pests and diseases in the sub-Saharan African countries Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Nigeria and Senegal.

The molecular breeding technology that UCR uses for cowpeas is based on finding genes that help cowpea plants tolerate insects and diseases, identifying markers that can indicate the presence of known genes, and using these to incorporate valuable genes into higher yielding varieties.

“Using molecular breeding techniques is a lot easier and quicker, and certainly less hit-or-miss, than conventional breeding techniques,” says Phil. “We can shorten the time needed to breed better adapted cowpea varieties preferred by farmers and markets.”

Phil explains that the first priority of the project was to map the cowpea genome.

“The map helps us locate the genes that play a role in expressing key traits such as drought tolerance, disease resistance or pest resistance,” says Phil. “Once we know where these genes are, we can use molecular marker tools to identify and help select for the traits. This is a lot quicker than growing the plant and observing if the trait is present or not.”

To use an analogy, think of the plant’s genome as a story: its words are the plant’s genes, and a molecular marker works as a text highlighter. Molecular markers are not precise enough to highlight specific words (genes), but they can highlight sentences (genomic regions) that contain these words (genes), making it easier and quicker to identify which plants have them. Traditionally, breeders have needed to grow plants to maturity under appropriately challenging conditions to see which ones are likely to have useful traits, but by using markers to flag valuable genes they are able to largely skip this step, and test large amounts of material to choose the best parents for their crosses, then check which of the progeny have inherited the gene or genes.

Photo: IITA

Diversity of cowpea seed.

Breeding new varieties faster, using modern techniques


A farmer pleased with her cowpea plants.

The main focus of the cowpea component in TLI was to optimise marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS) and marker-assisted backcrossing (MABC) breeding techniques for sub-Saharan African environments and relevant traits.

MARS identifies regions of the genome that control important traits. In the case of cowpeas, these include drought tolerance and insect resistance. It uses molecular markers to explore more combinations in the plant populations, thus increasing breeding efficiency.

MABC is the simplest form of marker-assisted breeding, in which the goal is to incorporate a major gene from an agronomically inferior source (the donor parent) into an elite cultivar or breeding line (the recurrent parent). Major genes by themselves have a significant effect; it’s therefore easier to find a major gene associated with a desired trait, than having to find and clone several minor genes. The aim is to produce a line made up almost entirely of the recurrent parent genotype, with only the selected major gene from the donor parent.

Using the genome map and molecular markers, the UCR team identified 30 cowpea lines with drought tolerance and pest resistance from 5,000 varieties in its collection, providing the raw material for marker-assisted breeding. “Once we knew which lines had the drought-tolerance and pest-resistance genes we were looking for, we crossed them with high-yielding lines to develop 20 advanced cowpea lines, which our African partners field tested,” says Phil.

The lines underwent final field tests in 2014, and the best-yielding drought-tolerant lines will be used locally in Burkina Faso, Mozambique and Senegal to develop new higher yielding varieties that will be available to growers by 2016.

“While we are still some time off from releasing these varieties, we already feel we are two or three years ahead of where we would be if we were doing things using only conventional breeding methods,” says Ndiaga.

Photo: IITA

A parasitic Striga plant, in a cowpea experimental plot.

The genome map and molecular markers have helped cowpea breeders like Ousmane Boukar, cowpea breeder and Kano Station Representative with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), headquartered in Nigeria, to locate the genes in cowpeas that play a role in expressing desirable traits.

Ousmane, who was GCP’s cowpea Product Delivery Coordinator, says, “We have used this technology to develop advanced breeding lines that are producing higher yields in drier conditions and displaying resistance to several pests and diseases like thrips and Striga. We expect these lines to be available to plant breeders by the end of 2015.

“TLI has had a huge impact in Africa in terms of developing capacity to carry out marker-assisted breeding,” he says. “This form of breeding helps us to breed new varieties in three to five years instead of seven to ten years.”

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 cowpea within TLI was coordinated by the University of California, Riverside in the USA. Target-country partners were Institut de l’Environnement et de Recherches Agricoles (INERA) in Burkina Faso, Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique and Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles (ISRA; Senegalese Agricultural Research Institute) in Senegal. Other partners were the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and USA’s Feed the Future Innovation Labs for Collaborative Research on Grain Legumes and for Climate-Resilient Cowpea. Tropical Legumes II (TLII) was a sister project to TLI, led by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) on behalf of IITA and the International Centre 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 translating them into breeding materials for the ultimate benefit of resource-poor farmers. Many partners in TLI also worked on projects in TLII.

Burkina Faso – evaluating new lines to improve the country’s economy

Cowpea is an important crop for the people of Burkina Faso. Over 10 million farmers produce on average 800,000 tonnes of cowpeas each year, making the country the third largest producer in the world, behind neighbours Nigeria and Niger.

Much of Burkina Faso’s cowpea crop is consumed domestically, but the government sees potential in increasing productivity for export to Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana in the south. This new venture would improve the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), which is the third lowest in the world.

“The government is very interested in our research to improve cowpea yields and secure them against drought and disease,” says Issa Drabo, lead cowpea breeder with the Institut de l’Environnement et de Recherches Agricoles (INERA) in Burkina Faso.

“We’ve been working closely with UCR to evaluate advanced breeding lines that we can use in our own breeding programme. So far we have several promising lines, some of which breeders are using to create varieties for release to farmers – some as early as this year.”

Photo: IITA

Farmers in Burkina Faso discuss cowpea varieties during participatory varietal selection activities.

Outsourcing the molecular work

Issa says his team has mainly been using conventional breeding techniques and outsourcing the molecular breeding work to the UK and USA. “We send leaf samples to the UK to be genotyped by a private company [LGC Genomics], who then forward the data to UCR, who analyse it and tell us which plants contain the desired genes and would be suitable for crossing.”

The whole process takes four to six weeks, from taking the samples to making a decision on which plants to cross.

“This system works well for countries that don’t have the capacity or know-how to do the molecular work,” says Darshna Vyas, a plant genetics specialist with LGC Genomics. “Genotyping has advanced to a point where even larger labs around the world choose to outsource their genotyping work, as it is cheaper and quicker than if they were to equip their lab and do it themselves. We do hundreds of thousands of genotyping samples a day – day in, day out. It’s our business.”

Darshna says LGC Genomics have also developed plant kits, as a result of working more with GCP partners from developing countries. “We would receive plant tissue that was not properly packaged and had become mouldy on the journey. The plant kits help researchers package their tissue correctly. The genotyping data you get from undamaged tissue compared to damaged tissue is a thousand times better.”

Getting the genotyping expertise on the ground

Photo: IITA

A trader bagging cowpeas at Bodija market, Ibadan, Nigeria.

To reduce their African partners’ reliance on UCR, researchers from the university, including Phil, have been training young plant breeders and PhD students from collaborating institutes. Independent of the cowpea project, they have also been joining GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP) training events in Africa to help breeders understand the new technologies.

“All this capacity building we do really gets at the issue of leaving expertise on the ground when the project ends,” says Phil. “If these breeders don’t have the expertise to use the modern breeding technologies, then we won’t make much progress.”

GCP Capacity Building Theme Leader and TLI Project Manager Ndeye Ndack Diop has been impressed by UCR’s enthusiasm to build capacity in its partner countries. “Capacity building is a core objective for GCP and the TLI project,” says Ndeye Ndack. “While it is built into almost all GCP projects, UCR have gone over and above what was expected of them and contributed towards building capacity not only among its partner institutions, but in many other African national breeding institutes as well.”

Issa Drabo reports that in 2014 two of his young researchers from Burkina Faso completed their training in GCP’s Integrated Breeding Multiyear Course, conducted by UCR and the IBP team.

One of Issa’s researchers at INERA, Jean-Baptiste de la Salle Tignegré, says the course helped him understand more about the background genetics, statistical analysis and data management involved in the process of molecular breeding. “Because of the course, we are now able to analyse the genotype data from LGC,” he says.

Mozambique – insects and drought are the problem

In 2010, the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane (UEM) joined the cowpea component of TLI, three years after the project started. “We were a little late to the party because we were busy setting up Mozambique’s first cowpea breeding programme, which only began in 2008,” recalls Rogerio Chiulele, a lecturer at the university’s Faculty of Agronomy and Forestry Engineering and lead scientist for cowpea research in Mozambique for TLI.

That year (2008), UEM received a GCP Capacity building à la carte grant to establish a cowpea-breeding programme for addressing some of the constraints limiting cowpea production and productivity, particularly drought, pests and diseases.

As in Burkina Faso and Senegal, in Mozambique cowpeas are an important source of food, for both protein and profit, particularly for the poor. Cowpeas rank as the fourth most cultivated crop in Mozambique, accounting for about nine percent of the total cultivated area, or an estimated four million hectares of smallholder farms.

Photo: IITA

Cowpea plants infested by aphids.

Rogerio says that farmers in his country, just as in other parts of Africa, struggle to reach their full yield potential because of climate, pests and diseases. “Several insect pests – such as aphids, flower thrips, nematodes and pod-sucking pests – can substantially reduce cowpea yield and productivity in Mozambique,” he says.

“Cowpea aphids can cause problems at any time in the growing season, but are most damaging during dry weather when they infest seedlings that are stressed from lack of water. In wetter parts of the country, flower thrips – which feed on floral buds – are the most damaging insect pest.” These insects are also major pests in Burkina Faso and Senegal, along with hairy caterpillar (Amsacta moloneyi), which can completely destroy swaths of cowpea seedlings.

Rogerio says breeding for insect resistance and drought tolerance, using marker-assisted techniques, improves breeders’ chances of increased cowpea productivity. “Productivity is key to increasing rural incomes, and new resources can then be invested in other activities that help boost total family income,” says Rogerio. “These new breeding techniques will help us achieve this quicker.”

Three high-yielding varieties to hit the Mozambique market in 2015

Photo: IITA

Mature cowpea pods ready for harvesting.

Since 2010, Rogerio’s team have quickly caught up to Burkina Faso and Senegal and plan to release three higher yielding new lines with drought tolerance in 2015. One of these lines, CB46, is based on a local cowpea variety crossed with a UCR-sourced American black-eyed pea variety that displays drought tolerance, which potentially has huge market appeal.

“Local varieties fetch, on average, half a US dollar per kilogram, compared to black-eyed pea varieties, whose price is in the region of four to five US dollars,” says Rogerio. “Obviously this is beneficial to the growers, but the benefits for consumers are just as appealing. The peas are better quality and tastier, and they take half as long to cook compared to local varieties.”

All these extra qualities are important to consider in any breeding programme and are a key objective of the Tropical Legume II (TLII) project (see box above). TLII activities, led by ICRISAT, seek to apply products from TLI to make an impact among farmers.

“TLII focuses on translating research outputs from TLI into tangible products, including new varieties,” says Ousmane Boukar, who works closely with Ndiaga, Issa and Rogerio in TLI and TLII.

Building a community of breeders to sustain success

Photo: C Peacock/IITA

Cowpea flower with developing pods.

Part of Ousmane’s GCP role as Product Delivery Coordinator for cowpeas was to lead a network of African cowpea and soybean breeders, and he champions the need for breeders to share information and materials as well as collaborating in other ways so as to sustain their breeding programmes post-GCP.

“To sustain integrated breeding practices post-2014, GCP has established Communities of Practice (CoP) that are discipline- and commodity-oriented,” says Ndeye Ndack. “The ultimate goal is to provide a platform for community problem solving, idea generation and information sharing.”

Ousmane says the core of this community was already alive and well before the CoP. “Ndiaga, Issa and I have over 80 years combined experience working on cowpea. We have continually crossed paths and have even been working together on other non-GCP projects over the past seven years.”

One such project the trio worked together on was to release a new drought-tolerant cowpea breeding line, IT97K-499-35, in Nigeria. “The performance of this variety impressed farmers in Mali, who named it jiffigui, which means ‘hope’,” says Ousmane. “We shared these new lines with our partners in Mali and Niger so they could conduct adaptation trials in their own countries.”

For young breeders like Rogerio, the CoP has provided an opportunity to meet and learn from these older partners. “I’ve really enjoyed our annual project meetings and feeling more a part of the world of cowpea breeding, particularly since we in Mozambique are isolated geographically from larger cowpea-producing countries in West Africa.”

For Phil Roberts, instances where more-established researchers mentor younger researchers in different countries give him hope that all the work UCR has done to install new breeding techniques will pay off. “Young researchers represent the future. If they can establish a foothold in breeding programmes in their national programmes, they can make an impact. Beyond having the know-how, it is vital to have the support of the national programme to develop modern breeding effort in cowpea – or any crop.”

Setting up breeders for the next 20 years

Photo: IITA

Farmer harvesting mature cowpea pods.

In Senegal, Ndiaga is hopeful that the work that the GCP project has accomplished has set up cowpea breeders in his country and others for the next 20 years.

“Both GCP’s and UCR’s commitment to build capacity in developing countries like Senegal cannot be valued less than the new higher yielding, drought-tolerant varieties that we are breeding,” says Ndiaga. “They have provided us with the tools and skills now to continue this research well into the future.

“We are close to releasing several new drought-tolerant and pest- and disease-resistant lines, which is our ultimate goal towards securing Senegal’s food and helping minimise the impact of the hungry period.”

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Jun 022015
Photo: S Edmeades/IFPRI

A farmer transports bananas to market by bicycle in Uganda.

At whatever time of the day or night you are reading this, somewhere in the world there are sure to be farmers trekking many kilometres to take their bananas to local markets. These small-scale farmers produce almost 90 percent of the world’s bananas, and make up a significant portion of the 400 million people around the globe’s tropical girdle – Africa, Asia and Latin America – who rely on bananas for food and a source of income.

Bananas are often called the world’s most popular fruit, and global production in 2012 was almost 140 million tonnes. India is the largest producer, while South and Central American farmers supply the most to international supermarket shelves, exporting 80 percent of their bananas.

The importance of the banana as a food crop in tropical areas cannot be underestimated. More than a simple snack, plantain-type bananas in particular are a key component in savoury dishes. In Central and East African countries – like Cameroon, Gabon, Rwanda and Uganda – one person will eat an average of between 100 kg and 250 kg of banana each year. That equates to somewhere between 800 and 2000 average-sized bananas. In those four countries, bananas account for up to a quarter of people’s daily calorie intake.

Photo:  A Vezina/Bioversity International

A stallholder offers bananas for sale at a fruit market in Nairobi, Kenya.

Banana’s asexuality inhibits its resilience

Photo: G Stansbury/IFPRI

Bananas growing in Rwanda.

Banana propagates though asexual reproduction. This means that all the bananas of each variety are genetically identical, or nearly so, and therefore susceptible to the same diseases. Indeed, the world has already lost almost its entire banana crop once: before the 1950s, the Gros Michel cultivar dominated banana exports, but it was gradually wiped out in most regions by Panama disease, caused by the fungus Fusarium oxysporum. Furthermore, with reproduction being asexual, it is difficult to develop new, resistant varieties through conventional breeding.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, pests and diseases were once again becoming a real threat to global banana production. Little genetic research had been done on the fruit, and only a small portion of its genes had been used in breeding new varieties in its 7,000-year history as a cultivated crop.

“Several research groups had developed genetic markers for bananas [‘flags’ on the genome that can be linked to physical traits], but there was no coordination and only sketchy germplasm studies,” recalls Jean Christophe Glaszmann from CIRAD (Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement; Agricultural Research for Development) in France.

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT.

A plantain farmer walks through a plantation in Quindió, Colombia.

“It was not a priority,” says Jean Christophe, who was Subprogramme Leader for Genetic Diversity for the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP), an international initiative established in 2004 to encourage the use of genetic diversity and advanced plant science to improve crops.

But between 2004 and 2012, under GCP, a wealth of research work was undertaken that culminated in the complete genetic sequencing of banana. It was a long process, says Jean Christophe, but the GCP-funded work on banana made a significant contribution to important results.

The extensive data on the genetics of banana are now available to scientists worldwide, who can use it to delve deeper into banana’s genes to breed varieties that can sustain the poorer populations in developing countries.

Once finally sequenced, the banana genome was published in one of the most prestigious scientific journals, Nature, in July 2012: “The reference Musa [banana and plantains] genome sequence represents a major advance in the quest to unravel the complex genetics of this vital crop, whose breeding is particularly challenging. Having access to the entire Musa gene repertoire is a key to identifying genes responsible for important agronomic characters, such as fruit quality and pest resistance.”

Filling and full of fuel, and with the major advantage that it fruits year-round, the banana is vital to food security in the tropics. Bananas are potassium-rich and supply people in developing countries with a major source of carbohydrates. They also provide vitamin A, niacin, vitamin B6, thiamine, riboflavin and folic acid.

Passionate people pooled for the work

Photo: UN Women Asia & the Pacific

A banana seller in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Plans to sequence the banana genome started taking shape in 2001 at Bioversity International (a CGIAR centre), where a group of scientists formed the Global Musa Genomics Consortium. At that time, the only plant whose genome had been sequenced was Arabidopsis thaliana (a small flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard, used as a model organism in plant science), with rice close behind.

CGIAR established GCP in 2004 “to tap into the rich genetic diversity of crops via a global network of partnerships and breeding programmes,” according to Hei Leung, who was instrumental to GCP’s foundation and a Subprogramme Leader for Comparative Genomics. (During its first phase GCP was organised by Subprogramme; these were later replaced by Research Themes and Research Initiatives.)

Hei acknowledges that banana was ‘somewhat on the fringe’ of GCP’s main focus on improving drought tolerance in crops. However, he says, it was still relevant for GCP to support the emergence of improved genetics for banana.

The work we did in genetic diversity is about future generations. We wanted a programme that is pro-poor, meaning that the majority of the people in the world are depending on [the crop].

Photo: Adebayo/IITA

A typical banana and plantain market at Ikire in Osun State, Nigeria.

“Drought tolerance is a good candidate because drought affects a lot of poor areas, but you really cannot just take one trait as pro-poor. We had a highly motivated group of researchers willing to devote their efforts to Musa,” says Hei.

“Nicolas Roux at Bioversity International was a passionate advocate for the partnership,” notes Hei. “The GCP community offered a framework for novel interactions among banana-related actors and players working on other crops, such as rice.”

Nicolas concurs on the potential for a little banana research to have great value: “Even though banana is among the most important basic food crops for 400 million people, and 100 million tonnes are grown annually on over 10 million hectares in 120 countries, it’s still under-researched and underfunded.”

The resultant research team was led by Japan’s National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences, which had vast experience in rice genome sequencing.

“So, living up to its name as a Challenge Programme, GCP decided to take the gamble on banana genomics and help it fly,” says Hei.

To advance genetics, you first need the intelligence

Photo: IITA

Banana bunches on an experimental plot at IITA.

Three global research agencies were charged with working together to develop a reference set for banana: Bioversity International, CIRAD, and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

Creating a reference set – a careful, tactical selection representing the genetic diversity of a crop – is an invaluable first step in enabling scientists to work together to develop more ‘intelligent’ genetic data.

“Initially, we put together a community of institutions that have collections [of banana germplasm],” explains Jean Christophe. “And then we put together these initial materials that we sample in order to develop representative subsamples – this is called a ‘composite’ set because it comes from different institutions.

“Then we genotype this composite collection, and the genotyping allows us to understand how all this [genetic material] is structured. Based on how it is structured, we can re sample a smaller representation – this is what becomes a reference set.”

So, in the case of crops with an extensive genetic resource base, such as rice, there may be more than 100,000 different plant samples, or accessions, that are reduced to a few thousand. For banana, which has a smaller genetic resource base, a few hundred thousand accessions can be reduced to a few dozen.

“A couple of hundred accessions or fewer become manageable for plant breeders or crop specialists. And we want this to serve as a reference, shared among people, so that everybody works on the same reference material,” says Jean Christophe.

“If you work on the same reference material, you can compile information that is more intelligent – you can have the crop specialist who says ‘this is resistant; this is tolerant; this is susceptible’, and you can also have the biochemist, you can have the physiologist; in the end, you can compile the information.”

“We analysed about 500 accessions and narrowed it down to 50,” says Jean Christophe. This reference collection is currently stored at the University of Leuven in Belgium.

The refined data collected on the banana reference set enabled the researchers to unravel the origin and genealogy of the most important dessert banana: the Cavendish, the cultivar subgroup that dominates banana exports worldwide. Thanks to the early GCP work, they were able to show that Cavendish bananas evolved from three markedly different subspecies.

Photo: C Sokunthea/World Bank

65-year-old Cambodian farmer, Khout Sorn, stands in front of his banana trees in Aphiwat Village, Tipo commune, Cambodia.

Malaysian wild subspecies fully sequenced

During these preliminary years of GCP-supported research on banana, the Programme funded several other smaller projects to consolidate genomic resources available for banana. Scientists developed libraries of artificial chromosomes that can be used in sequencing the DNA of banana, as well as genetic maps, which according to Jean Christophe are essential for improving the quality of the sequence.

These projects contributed to the full genome sequencing of a wild banana from Malaysia’s Pahang province in 2008. The ‘Pahang’ subspecies is one of the Cavendish variety’s three ancestors, and has also been shown to have had a role in the origin of many other banana cultivars, including those that are most important for food and economic security.

“GCP did not fund the sequence [of the Pahang banana], but it funded several things that made it possible to undertake full-scale sequencing,” Jean Christophe says. “It supported the development of particular resources and tools, and this made it possible for researchers to start the full-length sequencing.”

Photo: Asian Development Bank

A farmer at work on a banana plantation, Mindanao, the Philippines.

Breeders now need to set to work

The more that is known about the genes responsible for disease resistance and other desirable traits in banana, the more researchers will be able to help farmers in developing countries to improve their yields.

“The road remains long, but now we have a good understanding of genetic diversity,” says Jean Christophe. “We have done a range of studies aimed at unravelling the genes that could control sterility in the species.

“This is undoubtedly an inspiring challenge towards unlocking the genetic diversity in this crop.

“If we have more money in the future, we are going to sequence others of the subspecies so that we can have the full coverage of the current Cavendish genome. But that was a good start,” says Jean Christophe.

“What we have to do now is to create the right populations [of banana] in the field so that we can separate out the characteristics we want to breed for.”

The new intelligence on banana genetics has given breeders the material they need that will ultimately help 400 million people in the tropics sustain food supplies and livelihoods.

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Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Bananas on the way to market in Kenya.