He attributes this revolution in large part to GCP, saying it “played the role of catalyst. It got things started. It set the foundation. Now we are in a position to do further molecular breeding in chickpeas.”
Led by Pooran, researchers from India, Ethiopia and Kenya worked together not only to develop improved, drought-tolerant chickpeas that would thrive in semiarid conditions, but also to ensure these varieties would be growing in farmers’ fields across Africa within a decade.
The 10-year Generation Challenge Programme, with the goal of improving food security in developing countries, aimed to leave plant genetic assets as an important part of its legacy.
Diagnostic, or informative, molecular markers – which act like ‘tags’ for beneficial genes scientists are looking for – are an increasingly important genetic tool for breeders in developing resilient, improved varieties, and have been a key aspect of GCP’s research.
Chickpeas, ready to harvest.
What is a diagnostic molecular marker?
Developments in plant genetics over the past 10–15 years have provided breeders with powerful tools to detect beneficial traits of plants much more quickly than ever before.
Scientists can identify individual genes and explore which ones are responsible for, or contribute to, valuable characteristics such as tolerance to drought or poor soils, or resistance to pests or diseases.
Once a favourable gene for a target agronomic trait is discovered and located in the plant’s genome, the next step is to find a molecular marker that will effectively tag it. A molecular marker is simply a variation in the plant’s DNA sequence that can be detected by scientists using any of a range of methods. When one of these genetic variants is found close on the genome to a gene of interest (or even within the gene itself), it can be used to indicate the gene’s presence.
To use an analogy, think of a story as the plant’s genome: its words are the plant’s genes, and a molecular marker works like a text highlighter. Molecular markers are not precise enough to highlight specific words (genes), but they can highlight sentences (genomic regions) that contain these words, making it easier and quicker to identify whether or not they are present.
Once a marker is found to be associated with a gene, or multiple genes, and determined to be significant to a target trait, it is designated an informative marker, diagnostic marker or predictive marker. Some simple traits such as flower colour are controlled by one gene, but more complex traits such as drought tolerance are controlled by multiple genes. Diagnostic markers enable plant breeders to practise molecular breeding.
Breeders use markers to predict plant traits
Hard work: a Ugandan bean farmer’s jembe, or hoe.
In the process known as marker-assisted selection, plant breeders use diagnostic molecular markers early in the breeding process to determine whether plants they are developing will have the desired qualities. By testing only a small amount of seed or seedling tissue, breeders are able to choose the best parent plants for crossing, and easily see which of the progeny have inherited useful genes. This considerably shortens the time it takes to develop new crop varieties.
“We use diagnostic markers to check for favourable genes in plants under selection. If the genes are present, we grow the seed or plant and observe how the genes are expressed as plant characteristics in the field [phenotyping]; if the genes are not present, we throw the seed or plant away,” explains Steve Beebe, a leading bean breeder with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and GCP’s Product Delivery Coordinator for beans.
“This saves us resources and time, as instead of a growing few thousand plants to maturity, most of which would not possess the gene, by using markers to make our selection we need to grow and phenotype only a few hundred plants which we know have the desired genes.”
GCP supported 25 projects to discover and develop markers for genes that control traits that enable key crops, including bean and chickpea, to tolerate drought and poor soils and resist pests and diseases.
Genomic resources, including genetic maps and genotyping datasets, were developed during GCP’s first phase (2004–2008) and were then used in molecular-breeding projects during the second five years of the Programme (2009–2014).
“GCP’s philosophy was that we have, in breeding programmes, genomic resources that can be utilised. Now we are well placed, and we should be able to continue even after GCP with our molecular-breeding programme,” says Pooran.
A small selection of the rice diversity in the International Rice Research Institute gene bank – raw material for the creation of genomic resources.
Markers developed for drought tolerance
With climate change making droughts more frequent and severe, breeding for drought tolerance was a key priority for GCP from its inception.
Different plants may use similar strategies to tolerate drought, for example, having longer roots or reducing water loss from leaves. But drought tolerance is a complex trait to breed, as in each crop a large number of genes are involved.
Wheat, for example, has many traits – each controlled by different genes – that allow the crop to tolerate extreme temperature and/or lack of moisture. Identifying drought tolerance in wheat is therefore a search for many genes. In the particular case of wheat, this search is compounded by its genetic make-up, which is one of the most complex in the plant kingdom.
The difficulty of identifying genes that play a significant role in drought tolerance makes it all the more impressive when researchers successfully collaborate to overcome these challenges. GCP-supported scientists were able to develop and use diagnostic markers in chickpea, rice, sorghum and wheat to breed for drought tolerance. The first new drought-tolerant varieties bred using marker-assisted selection have already been released to farmers in Africa and Asia and are making significant contributions to food and income security.
Tanzanian sorghum farmer.
Markers developed for pests and diseases
A bumper harvest of cassava roots at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria.
Cassava mosaic disease (CMD) is the biggest threat to cassava production in Africa – where more cassava is grown and eaten than any other crop. A principal source of CMD resistance is CMD2, a dominant gene that confers high levels of resistance.
Nigerian GCP-supported researchers worked on identifying and validating diagnostic markers that are associated with CMD2. These markers are being used in marker-assisted selection work to transfer CMD resistance to locally-adapted, farmer-preferred varieties.
In the common bean, GCP-supported researchers identified genes for resistance to pests such as bean stem maggot in Ethiopia, as well as diseases such as the common mosaic necrosis potyvirus and common bacterial blight, which reduce bean quality and yields and in some cases means total crop losses.
Markers developed for acidic and saline soils
Sifting rice in Nepal.
Aluminium toxicity and phosphorus deficiency, caused by imbalanced nutrient availability in acid soils, are major factors in inhibiting crop productivity throughout the world. Aluminium toxicity also exacerbates the effects of drought by inhibiting root growth.
Diagnostic markers for genes that confer tolerance to high levels of aluminium and improve phosphorus uptake were identified in sorghum, maize and rice. The markers linked to these two sets of similar major genes have been used efficiently in breeding programmes in Africa and Asia.
Diagnostic molecular markers are, in their most essential form, data. That means they are easily stored and maintained as data in publicly accessible databases and publications. Breeders can now access the molecular markers developed for various crops through the Integrated Breeding Platform – a web-based one-stop shop for integrated breeding information (including genetic resources), tools and support, which was established by GCP and is now continuing independently following GCP’s close – in order to design and carry out breeding projects.
“We could not have done that much in developing genomic resources without GCP support,” says Pooran. “Now the breeding products are coming; the markers are strengthening our work; and you will see in the next five to six years more products coming from molecular breeding.
“For me, GCP has improved the efficiency of the breeding programme – that is the biggest advantage.”
The Institute was a source of valuable partnerships with highly regarded agricultural scientists and researchers, as well as of germplasm and genetic resources from its gene bank. With assistance from GCP, these resources have enabled scientists and crop breeders throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America to achieve crop improvements for chickpea, groundnut, pearl millet, pigeonpea and sorghum, all of which are staple crops that millions of people depend upon for survival.
“The philosophy of GCP at the start was to tap into and use the genomic recourses we had in our gene banks to develop ICRISAT’s and our partners’ breeding programmes,” says Pooran Gaur, GCP’s Product Delivery Coordinator for chickpeas, and Principal Scientist for chickpea genetics and breeding at ICRISAT.
ICRISAT’s gene bank is a global repository of crop genetic diversity. It contains 123,023 germplasm accessions – in the form of seed samples – assembled from 144 countries, making it one of the largest gene banks in the world.
The collection serves as insurance against genetic loss and as a source of resistance to diseases and pests, tolerance to climatic and other environmental stresses, and improved quality and yield traits for crop breeding.
Pooran says the ultimate goal of the GCP–ICRISAT partnership was to use the resources in the gene bank to develop drought-tolerant varieties that would thrive in semi-arid conditions and to make these varieties available to farmers’ fields within a decade.
Harvesting sorghum in Kenya.
Setting a foundation for higher yielding, drought-tolerant chickpeas
Pooran was involved with GCP from its beginning in 2004 and was instrumental in coordinating chickpea projects.
Chickpea harvest, India.
“GCP got things started; it set a foundation for using genomic resources to breed chickpeas,” says Pooran. During Phase I of GCP (2004–2009), ICRISAT was involved in developing reference sets for chickpeas and developing mapping populations for drought-tolerance traits. It also collaborated with 19 other international research organisations to successfully sequence the chickpea genome in 2013 – a major breakthrough that paved the way for the development of even more superior chickpea varieties to transform production in semi-arid environments.
The International Chickpea Genome Sequencing Consortium, led by ICRISAT and partly funded by GCP, identified more than 28,000 genes and several million genetic markers. Pooran says these are expected to illuminate important genetic traits that may enhance new varieties.
The trait of most interest to many chickpea breeders is drought tolerance. In recent years, droughts in the south of India, the largest producer of chickpeas, have reduced yields to less than one tonne per hectare. Droughts have also diminished chickpea yields in Ethiopia and Kenya, Africa’s largest chickpea producers and exporters to India. While total global production of chickpeas is around 8.6 million tonnes per year, drought causes losses of around 3.7 million tonnes worldwide.
Putting it to the test: Rajeev Varshney (left, see below) and Pooran Gaur (right) inspecting a chickpea field trial.
Pooran says the foundation work supported by GCP was particularly important for identifying drought-tolerance traits. “We had identified plants with early maturing traits. This allowed us to develop chickpea varieties that have more chance of escaping drought when cereal farmers produce a fast-growing crop in between the harvest and planting of their main crops,” he says.
New varieties that grow and develop more quickly are expected to play a key role in expanding the area suitable for chickpeas into new niches where the available crop-growing seasons are shorter.
“In southern India now we are already seeing these varieties growing well, and their yield is very high,” says Pooran. “In fact, productivity has increased in the south by about seven to eight times in the last 10–12 years.”
Developing capacity by involving partners in Kenya and Ethiopia
Monitoring the water use of chickpea plants in experiments at Egerton University, Njoro, Kenya.
“When we first started working on this project in mid-2007, our breeding programme was very weak,” says Paul Kimurto of the Faculty of Agriculture at Egerton University, who was Lead Scientist for chickpea research in the TLI project. “We have since accumulated a lot of germplasm, a chickpea reference set and a mapping population, all of which have greatly boosted our breeding programme.”
Paul says that with this increased capacity, his team in Kenya had released six new varieties of chickpea in the five years prior to GCP’s close at the end of 2014, and were expecting more to be ready within in the next three years.
In fields across Ethiopia, meanwhile, the introduction of new varieties has already brought a dramatic increase in productivity, with yields doubling in recent years, according to Asnake Fikre, Crop Research Directorate Director for EIAR.
Varieties like the large-seeded and high-valued kabuli have presented new opportunities for farmers to earn extra income through the export industry, and indeed chickpea exports from eastern Africa have substantially increased since 2001. This has transformed Ethiopia’s chickpeas from simple subsistence crop to one of great commercial significance.
This chickpea seller in Ethiopia says that kabuli varieties are becoming more popular.
“This will have significant impact on resource-poor communities in the semi-arid regions, because they will have the opportunity to improve their livelihoods and increase food availability,” Jean-Marcel stated in January 2012.
Pigeonpea, the grains of which make a highly nutritious and protein-rich food, is a hardy and drought-tolerant crop. It is grown in the semi-arid tropics and subtropics of Asia, Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean. This crop’s prolific seed production and tolerance to drought help reduce farmers’ vulnerability to potential food shortages during dry periods.
A pigeonpea farmer in his field in India.
The collaborative project brought together 12 participating institutes operating under the umbrella of the International Initiative for Pigeonpea Genomics. The initiative was led by Rajeev K Varshney, GCP’s Genomics Theme Leader and Director of the Center of Excellence in Genomics at ICRISAT. Other participants included BGI in Shenzhen, China; four universities; and five other advanced research entities, both private and public. The Plant Genome Research Program of the National Science Foundation, USA, also funded part of this research.
“We were able to assemble over 70 percent of the genome. This was sufficient to enable us to change breeding approaches for pigeonpea,” says Rajeev. “That is, we can now combine conventional and molecular breeding methods – something we couldn’t do as well before – and access enough genes to create many new pigeonpea varieties that will effectively help improve the food security and livelihoods of resource-poor communities.”
Pigeonpea breeders are now able to use markers for genetic mapping and trait identification, marker-assisted selection, marker-assisted recurrent selection and genomic selection. These techniques, Rajeev says, “considerably cut breeding time by doing away with several cropping cycles. This means new varieties reach dryland areas of Africa and Asia more quickly, thus improving and increasing the sustainability of food production systems in these regions.”
Several genes, unique to pigeonpea, were also identified for drought tolerance by the project. Future research may find ways of transferring these genes to other legumes in the same family – such as soybean, cowpea and common bean – helping these crops also become more drought tolerant. This would be a significant asset in view of the increasingly drier climates in these crops’ production areas.
“We cannot help but agree with William Dar, Director General of ICRISAT, who observed that the ‘mapping of the pigeonpea genome is a breakthrough that could not have come at a better time’,” says Jean-Marcel.
East African farmers inspect pigeonpea at flowering time.
Securing income-generating groundnut crops in Africa
Groundnut, otherwise known as peanut, is one of ICRISAT’s mandate crops. Groundnuts provide a key source of nutrition for Africa’s farming families and have the potential to sustain a strong African export industry in future.
“The groundnut is one of the most important income-generating crops for my country and other countries in East Africa,” says Patrick Okori, who is a groundnut breeder and Principal Scientist with ICRISAT in Malawi and who was GCP’s Product Delivery Coordinator for groundnuts.
“It’s like a small bank for many smallholder farmers, one that can be easily converted into cash, fetching the highest prices,” he says
It is the same in West Africa, according to groundnut breeder Issa Faye from the Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles (ISRA), who has been involved in GCP since 2008. “It’s very important for Senegal,” he says. “It’s the most important cash crop here – a big source of revenue for farmers around the country. Senegal is one of the largest exporters of groundnut in West Africa.”
The sequencing work has given breeders access to 96 percent of all groundnut genes and provided the molecular map needed to breed drought-tolerant and disease-resistant higher yielding varieties, faster.
Drying groundnut harvest, Mozambique.
“The wild relatives of a number of crops contain genetic stocks that hold the most promise to overcome drought and disease,” says Vincent Vadez, ICRISAT Principal Scientist and groundnut research leader for GCP’s Legumes Research Initiative. And for groundnut, these stocks have already had a major impact in generating the genetic tools that are key to making more rapid and efficient progress in crop science
Chair of GCP’s Consortium Committee, David Hoisington – formerly ICRISAT’s Director of Research and now Senior Research Scientist and Program Director at the University of Georgia – says the sequencing could be a huge step forward for boosting agriculture in developing countries.
“Researchers and plant breeders now have much better tools available to breed more productive and more resilient groundnut varieties, with improved yields and better nutrition,” he says.
These resilient varieties should be available to farmers across Africa within a few years.
Supporting key crops in West Africa
Harvested pearl millet and sorghum in Ghana.
With a focus on the semi-arid tropics, ICRISAT has been working closely with partners for 30 years to improve rainfed farming systems in West Africa. One sorghum researcher who has been working on the ground with local partners in Mali since 1998 is Eva Weltzien-Rattunde. She is an ICRISAT Principal Scientist in sorghum breeding and genetic resources, based in Mali, and was Principal Investigator for GCP’s Sorghum Research Initiative.
“Low phosphorus availability is a key problem for farmers on the coast of West Africa, and breeding phosphorus-efficient crops to cope with these conditions has been a main objective of ICRISAT in West Africa for some time,” says Eva.
“We’ve had good results in terms of field trials. We have at least 20 lines we are field testing at the moment, which we selected from 1,100 lines that we tested under high and low phosphorous conditions.” Eva says that some of these lines could be released as new varieties as early as 2015.
Ibrahima Sissoko, a data curator working with Eva’s team at ICRISAT in Mali, also adds that the collaborations and involvement with GCP have increased his and other developing country partners’ capacity in data management and statistical analysis, as well as helping to expand their network. “I can get help from other members of my sorghum community,” he says.
In summing up, Eva says: “Overall, we feel the GCP partnerships are enhancing our capacity here in Mali, and that we are closer to delivering more robust sorghum varieties that will help farmers and feed the ever-growing population in West Africa.”
Enjoying a tasty dish of sorghum.
Tom Hash, millet breeder and Principal Scientist at ICRISAT and GCP Principal Investigator for millet, shares Eva’s sentiments on GCP and the impact it is having in West Africa.
Between 2005 and 2007, GCP invested in genetic research for millet, which is the sixth most important cereal crop globally and a staple food (along with sorghum) in Burkina Faso, Chad, Eritrea, Mali, Niger, northern Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan.
With financial support from GCP, and drawing on lessons learnt from parallel GCP genetic research, including in sorghum and chickpea, ICRISAT was able to mine its considerable pearl millet genetic resources for desirable traits.
Hari D Upadhyaya, Principal Scientist and Head of Genebank at ICRISAT in India, led this task to develop and genotype a ‘composite collection’ of pearl millet. The team created a selection that strategically reduced the 21,594 accessions in the gene bank down to just 1,021. This collection includes lines developed at ICRISAT and material from other sources, with a range of valuable traits including tolerance to drought, heat and soil salinity and resistance to blast, downy mildew, ergot, rust and smut, and even resistance to multiple diseases.
The team then used molecular markers to fingerprint the DNA of plants grown from the collection.
“GCP supported collaboration with CIRAD, and our pearl millet breeding teams learnt how to do marker-based genetic diversity analysis,” says Tom. “This work, combined with the genomic resources work, did make some significant contributions to pearl millet research.”
Over 100 new varieties of pearl millet have recently been developed and released in Africa by the African Centre for Crop Improvement in South Africa, another developing country partner of ICRISAT and GCP. Tom says the initial genetic research was pivotal to this happening.
A Ghanaian farmer examines his pearl millet harvest.
From poverty to prosperity through partnerships
Patrick Okori says that GCP has enabled his organisation to make a much stronger contribution to the quality of science.
“Prior to GCP, ICRISAT was already one of the big investors in legume research, because that was its mandate. The arrival of GCP, however, expanded the number of partners that ICRISAT had, both locally and globally, through the resources, strategic meetings and partnership arrangements that GCP provided as a broad platform for engaging in genomic research and the life sciences.”
This expansion of ICRISAT, facilitated by GCP, also enabled researchers from across the world and in diverse fields to interact in ways they had never had the opportunity to before, says Vincent Vadez.
“GCP has allowed me to make contact with people working on other legumes, for example,” he says. “It has allowed us to test hypotheses in other related crops, and we’ve generated quite a bit of good science from that.”
Pooran Gaur has had a similar experience with his chickpea research at ICRISAT.
“GCP provided the first opportunity for us to work with the bean and cowpea groups, learning from each other. That cross-learning from other crops really helped us. You learn many things working together, and I think we have developed a good relationship, a good community for legumes now.”
This community environment has made the best use of an unusual variety of skills, knowledge and resources, agrees Rajeev Varshney.
“It brought together people from all kinds of scientific disciplines – from genomics, bioinformatics, biology, molecular biology and so on,” he says. “Such a pooling of complementary expertise and resources made great achievements possible.”
Maize is a staple crop for Kenyans, with 90 percent of the population depending on it for food. However, acid soils cause yield losses of 17–50 percent across the nation.
Soil acidity is a major environmental and economic concern in many more countries around the world. The availability of nutrients in soil is affected by pH, so acid conditions make it harder for plants to get a balanced diet. High acidity causes two major problems: perilously low levels of phosphorus and toxically high levels of aluminium. Aluminium toxicity affects 38 percent of farmland in Southeast Asia, 31 percent in Latin America and 20 percent in East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and North America.
Aluminium toxicity in soil comes close to rivalling drought as a food-security threat in critical tropical food-producing regions. By damaging roots, acid soils deprive plants of the nutrients and water they need to grow – a particularly bitter effect when water is scarce.
Maize, meanwhile, is one of the most economically important food crops worldwide. It is grown in virtually every country in the world, and it is a staple food for more than 1.2 billion people in developing countries across sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. In many cultures it is consumed primarily as porridge: polenta in Italy; angu in Brazil; and isitshwala, nshima, pap, posho,sadza or ugali in Africa.
Ugali, a stiff maize porridge that is a staple dish across East Africa, being prepared in Tanzania.
Maize is also a staple food for animals reared for meat, eggs and dairy products. Around 60 percent of global maize production is used for animal feed.
The world demand for maize is increasing at the same time as global populations burgeon and climate changes. Therefore, improving the ability of maize to withstand acid soils and produce higher yields with less reliable rainfall is paramount. This is why the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP) invested almost USD 12.5 million into maize research between 2004 and 2014.
GCP’s goal was to facilitate the use of genetic diversity and advanced plant science to improve food security in developing countries through the breeding of ‘super’ crops – including maize – able to tolerate drought and poor soils and resist diseases.
Researchers take on the double whammy of acid soils and drought
Part of successfully breeding higher-yielding drought-tolerant maize varieties involves improving plant genetics for acid soils. In these soils, aluminium toxicity inhibits root growth, reducing the amount of water and nutrients that the plant can absorb and compounding the effects of drought.
Improving plant root development for aluminium tolerance and phosphorous efficiency can therefore have the positive side effect of higher plant yield when water is limited.
A farmer in Tanzania shows the effects of drought on her maize crop. The maize ears are undersized with few grains.
Although plant breeders have exploited the considerable variation in aluminium tolerance between different maize varieties for many years, aluminium toxicity has been a significant but poorly understood component of plant genetics. It is a particularly complex trait in maize that involves multiple genes and physiological mechanisms.
The solution is to take stock of what maize germplasm is available worldwide, characterise it, clone the sought-after genes and implement new breeding methods to increase diversity and genetic stocks.
Marilyn Warburton, then a molecular geneticist at CIMMYT, led this GCP-funded project. Her goal was to discover how all the genetic diversity in maize gene-bank collections around the globe might be used for practical plant improvement. She first gathered samples from gene banks all over the world, including those of CIMMYT and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Scientists from developing country research centres in China, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria, Thailand and Vietnam also contributed by supplying DNA from their local varieties.
Researchers then used molecular markers and a bulk fingerprinting method – which Marilyn was instrumental in developing – for three purposes: to characterise the structure of maize populations, to better understand how maize migrated across the world, and to complete the global picture of maize biodiversity. Scientists were also using markers to search for new genes associated with desirable traits.
Allen Oppong, a maize pathologist and breeder from Ghana’s Crops Research Institute (CRI), of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, was supported by GCP from 2007 to 2010 to characterise Ghana’s maize germplasm. Trained in using the fingerprinting technique, Allen was able to identify distinctly different maize germplasm in the north of Ghana (with its dry savanna landscape) and in the south (with its high rainfall). He also identified mixed germplasm, which he says demonstrates that plant germplasm often finds its way to places where it is not suitable for optimal yield and productivity. Maize yields across the country are low.
Stocktaking a world’s worth of maize for GCP was a challenge, but not the only one, according to Marilyn. “In the first year it was hard to see how all the different partners would work together. Data analysis and storage was the hardest; everyone seemed to have their own idea about how the data could be stored, accessed and analysed best.
“The science was also evolving, even as we were working, so you could choose one way to sequence or genotype your data, and before you were even done with the project, a better way would be available,” she recalls.
Maize ears drying in Ghana.
Comparing genes: sorghum gene paves way for maize aluminium tolerance
In parallel to Marilyn’s work, scientists at the Brazilian Corporation of Agricultural Research (EMBRAPA) had already been advancing research on plant genetics for acid soils and the effects of aluminium toxicity on sorghum – spurred on by the fact that almost 70 percent of Brazil’s arable land is made up of acid soils.
What was of particular interest to GCP in 2004 was that the Brazilians, together with researchers at Cornell University in the USA, had recently mapped and identified the major sorghum aluminium tolerance locus AltSB, and were working on isolating the major gene within it with a view to cloning it. Major genes were known to control aluminium tolerance in sorghum, wheat and barley and produce good yields in soils that had high levels of aluminium. The gene had also been found in rape and rye.
GCP embraced the opportunity to fund more of this work with a view to speeding up the development of maize – as well as sorghum and rice – germplasm that can withstand the double whammy of acid soils and drought.
Maize trials in the field at EMBRAPA. The maize plants on the left are aluminium-tolerant and so able to withstand acid soils, while those on the right are not.
Leon Kochian, Director of the Robert W Holley Center for Agriculture and Health, United States Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service and Professor at Cornell University, was a Principal Investigator for various GCP research projects investigating how to improve grain yields of crops grown in acid soils. “GCP was interested in our work because we were working with such critical crops,” he says.
“The idea was to use discoveries made in the first half of the GCP’s 10-year programme – use comparative genomics to look into genes of rice and maize to see if we can see relations in those genes – and once you’ve cloned a gene, it is easier to find a gene that can work for other crops.”
By combing the maize genome searching for a similar gene to sorghum’s SbMATE, Jurandir’s EMBRAPA colleague Claudia Guimarães and a team of GCP-supported scientists discovered the maize aluminium tolerance gene ZmMATE1. High expression of this gene, first observed in maize lines with three copies of ZmMATE1, has been shown to increase aluminium tolerance. ZmMATE1 improves grain yields in acid soil by up to one tonne per hectare when introgressed in an aluminium-sensitive line.
The genetic region, or locus, containing the ZmMATE1 aluminium tolerance gene is known as qALT6. Photo 1 shows a rhyzobox containing two layers of soil: a corrected top-soil and lower soils with 15 percent aluminium saturation. On the right, near-isogenic lines (NILs) introgressed with qALT6 show deeper roots and longer secondary roots in the acidic lower soil, whereas on the left the maize line without qALT6, L53, shows roots mainly confined to the corrected top soil. Photo 2 shows maize ears from lines without qALT6 (above) and with qALT6 (below); the lines with qALT6 maintain their size and quality even under high aluminium levels of 40 percent aluminium saturation.
The outcomes of these GCP-supported research projects provided the basic materials, such as molecular markers and donor sources of the positive alleles, for molecular-breeding programmes focusing on improving maize production and stability on acid soils in Latin America, Africa and other developing regions.
Kenya deploys powerful maize genes
One of those researchers crucial to achieving impact in GCP’s work in maize was Samuel (Sam) Gudu of Moi University, Kenya. From 2010 he was the Principal Investigator for GCP’s project on using marker-assisted backcrossing (MABC) to improve aluminium tolerance and phosphorous efficiency in maize in Kenya. This project combined molecular and conventional breeding approaches to speed up the development of maize varieties adapted to the acid soils of Africa, and was closely connected to the other GCP comparative genomics projects in maize and sorghum.
MABC is a type of marker-assisted selection (see box), which Sam’s team – including Dickson Ligeyo of KALRO – used to combine new molecular materials developed through GCP with Kenyan varieties. They have thus been able to significantly advance the breeding of maize varieties suitable for soils in Kenya and other African countries.
Maize and Comparative Genomics were two of seven Research Initiatives (RIs) where GCP concentrated on advancing researchers’ and breeders’ skills and resources in developing countries. Through this work, scientists have been able to characterise maize germplasm using improved trait observation and characterisation methods (phenotyping), implement molecular-breeding programmes, enhance strategic data management and build local human and infrastructure capacity.
The ultimate goal of the international research collaboration on comparative genomics in maize was to improve maize yields grown on acidic soils under drought conditions in Kenya and other African countries, as well as in Latin America. Seven institutes partnered up to for the comparative genomics research: Moi University, KALRO, EMBRAPA, Cornell University, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), JIRCAS and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).
“Before funding by GCP, we were mainly working on maize to develop breeding products resistant to disease and with increased yield,” says Sam. “At that time we had not known that soil acidity was a major problem in the parts of Kenya where we grow maize and sorghum. GCP knew that soil acidity could limit yields, so in the work with GCP we managed to characterise most of our acid soils. We now know that it was one of the major problems for limiting the yield of maize and sorghum.
“The relationship to EMBRAPA and Cornell University is one of the most important links we have. We developed material much faster through our collaboration with our colleagues in the advanced labs. I can see that post-GCP we will still want to communicate and interact with our colleagues in Brazil and the USA to enable us to continue to identify molecular materials that we discover,” he says. Sam and other maize researchers across Kenya, including Dickson, have since developed inbred, hybrid and synthetic varieties with improved aluminium tolerance for acid soils, which are now available for African farmers.
A Kenyan maize farmer.
“We crossed them [the new genes identified to have aluminium tolerance] with our local material to produce the materials we required for our conditions,” says Sam.
“The potential for aluminium-tolerant and phosphorous-efficient material across Africa is great. I know that in Ethiopia, aluminium toxicity from acid soil is a problem. It is also a major problem in Tanzania. It is a major problem in South Africa and a major problem in Kenya. So our breeding work, which is starting now to produce genetic materials that can be used directly, or could be developed even further in these other countries, is laying the foundation for maize improvement in acid soils.”
Sam is very proud of the work: “Several times I have felt accomplishment, because we identified material for Kenya for the first time. No one else was working on phosphorous efficiency or aluminium tolerance, and we have come up with materials that have been tested and have become varieties. It made me feel that we’re contributing to food security in Kenya.”
Maize grain for sale.
Maize for meat: GCP’s advances in maize genetics help feed Asia’s new appetites
Reaping from the substantial advances in maize genetics and breeding, researchers in Asia were also able to enhance Asian maize genetic resources.
A pig roots among maize ears on a small farm in Nepal.
Bindiganavile Vivek, a senior maize breeder for CIMMYT based in India, has been working with GCP since 2008 on improving drought tolerance in maize, especially for Asia, for two reasons: unrelenting droughts and a staggering growth the importance of maize as a feedstock. This work was funded by GCP as part of its Maize Research Initiative.
“People’s diets across Asia changed after government policies changed in the 1990s. We had a more free market economy, and along with that came more money that people could spend. That prompted a shift towards a non vegetarian diet,” Vivek recounts.
“Maize, being the number one feed crop of the world, started to come into demand. From the year 2000 up to now, the growing area of maize across Asia has been increasing by about two percent every year. That’s a phenomenal increase. It’s been replacing other crops – sorghum and rice. There’s more and more demand.
“Seventy percent of the maize that is produced in Asia is used as feed. And 70 percent of that feed is poultry feed.”
In Vietnam, for example, the government is actively promoting the expansion of maize acreage, again displacing rice. Other Asian nations involved in the push for maize include China, Indonesia and The Philippines.
A farmer in Indonesia transports his maize harvest by motorcycle.
The problem with this growth is that 80 percent of the 19 million hectares of maize in South and Southeast Asia relies on rain as its only source of water, so is prone to drought: “Wherever you are, you cannot escape drought,” says Vivek. And resource-poor farmers have limited access to improved maize products or hybrids appropriate for their situation.
Vivek’s research for GCP focused on the development – using marker-assisted breeding methods, specifically marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS) – of new drought-tolerant maize adapted to many countries in Asia. His goal was to transfer the highest expression of drought tolerance in maize into elite well-adapted Asian lines targeted at drought-prone or water-constrained environments.
Asia’s existing maize varieties had no history of breeding for drought tolerance, only for disease resistance. To make a plant drought tolerant, many genes have to be incorporated into a new variety. So Vivek asked: “How do you address the increasing demand for maize that meets the drought-tolerance issue?”
The recent work on advancing maize genetics for acid soils in the African and Brazilian GCP projects meant it was a golden opportunity for Vivek to reap some of the new genetic resources.
“This was a good opportunity to use African germplasm, bring it into India and cross it to some Asia-adapted material,” he says.
Stored maize ears hanging in long bunches outside a house in China.
A key issue Vivek faced, however, was that most African maize varieties are white, and most Asian maize varieties are yellow. “You cannot directly deploy what you breed in Africa into Asia,” Vivek says. “Plus, there’s so much difference in the environments [between Africa and Asia] and maize is very responsive to its environment.”
The advances in marker-assisted breeding since the inception of GCP contributed significantly towards the success of Vivek’s team.
“In collaboration with GCP, IITA, Cornell University and Monsanto, CIMMYT has initiated the largest public sector MARS breeding approach in the world,” says Vivek.
The outcome is good: “We now have some early-generation, yellow, drought-tolerant inbred germplasm and lines suitable for Asia.
“GCP gave us a good start. We now need to expand and build on this,” says Vivek.
GCP’s supported work laid the foundation for other CIMMYT projects, such as the Affordable, Accessible, Asian Drought-Tolerant Maize project funded by the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture. This project is developing yet more germplasm with drought tolerance.
A better picture: GCP brightens maize research
Dickson Ligeyo’s worries of a stormy future for Kenya’s maize production have lifted over the 10 years of GCP. At the end of 2014, Kenya had two new varieties that were in the final stage of testing in the national performance trials before being released to farmers.
“There is a brighter picture for Kenya’s maize production since we have acquired acid-tolerant germplasm from Brazil, which we are using in our breeding programmes,” Dickson says.
In West Africa, researchers are also revelling in the opportunity they have been given to help enhance local yields in the face of a changing climate. “My institute benefited from GCP not only in terms of human resource development, but also in provision of some basic equipment for field phenotyping and some laboratory equipment,” says Allen Oppong in Ghana.
“Through the support of GCP, I was able to characterise maize landraces found in Ghana using the bulk fingerprinting technique. This work has been published and I think it’s useful information for maize breeding in Ghana – and possibly other parts of the world.”
The main challenge now for breeders, according to Allen, is getting the new varieties out to farmers: “Most people don’t like change. The new varieties are higher yielding, disease resistant, nutritious – all good qualities. But the challenge is demonstrating to farmers that these materials are better than what they have.”
This Kenyan farmer is very happy with his healthy maize crop, grown using an improved variety during a period of drought.
Certainly GCP has strengthened the capacity of researchers across Africa, Asia and Latin America, training researchers in maize breeding, data management, statistics, trial evaluations and phenotyping. The training has been geared so that scientists in developed countries can use genetic diversity and advanced plant science to improve crops for greater food security in the developing world.
Elliot Tembo, a maize breeder with the private sector in sub-Saharan Africa says: “As a breeder and a student, I have been exposed to new breeding tools through GCP. Before my involvement, I was literally blind in the use of molecular tools. Now, I am no longer relying only on pedigree data – which is not always reliable – to classify germplasm.”
Allen agrees: “GCP has had tremendous impact on my life as a researcher. The capacity-building programme supported my training in marker-assisted selection training at CIMMYT in Mexico. This training exposed me to modern techniques in plant breeding and genomics. Similarly, it built my confidence and work efficiency.”
There is no doubt that GCP research has brightened the picture for maize research and development where it is most needed: with researchers in developing countries where poor farmers and communities rely on maize as their staple food and main crop.
“There is a clear need to develop a range of varieties that meet diverse requirements”
For 30 years, Ousmane Boukar has been working towards a singular goal: to improve and secure cowpea production in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Cowpeas are very important in sub-Saharan Africa,” he says. “They are an important source of protein, and contribute to the livelihood and food security of millions.”
Despite their dietary importance, cowpea yields in Africa are low – on average a mere 10 to 30 percent of their potential. This is primarily because of attacks from insects and diseases, but is often further compounded by chronic drought.
Since 2007, Ousmane has worked for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) as cowpea breeder and Station Representative in Kano, Nigeria. As a breeder, his mission is to improve yields by identifying additional genetic sources of resistance to pests and diseases, tolerance of parasitic weeds, improved drought tolerance and adaptation to low soil fertility.
To accomplish this, he searches for genes associated with these kinds of valuable traits. He then uses this information to develop breeding populations comprising of plant lines with multiple useful traits, and works with farmers to grow these populations to make sure they do grow well in the field before releasing them as new varieties.
“Cowpea breeding is very challenging because of the range of production environments and cropping systems, and the diverse preferences among consumers and producers for grain, leaves, pods and fodder,” Ousmane says. “There is a clear need to develop a range of varieties that meet those diverse requirements, combining high yield potential and resistance to the major production constraints.”
A farmer’s field full of cowpea plants (with maize at the background) in Kano, Nigeria.
Joining an international programme
The same year Ousmane joined IITA, he joined forces in a new collaboration with cowpea breeders and geneticists from Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Senegal and the USA. He was Product Delivery Coordinator for the cowpea component of the Tropical Legumes I project (TLI) – a seven-year project funded by the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP) that sought to use marker-assisted breeding techniques to breed high yielding, drought-tolerant and insect- and disease-resistant varieties of four important legumes.
Cowpea plants at podding stage.
“TLI has had a huge impact in Africa in terms of developing capacity to carry out marker-assisted breeding. This form of breeding helps us to breed new varieties in three to five years instead of seven to ten years.”
Key outcomes from the cowpea component of the project were a cowpea genome map and molecular markers that have helped breeders like Ousmane locate the genes in cowpeas that determine and regulate desirable traits. These markers can be used like flags to indicate which potential parent plants have useful genes, and which of the progeny from each cross have inherited them, making breeding more efficient.
“We have used this technology to develop advanced breeding lines that are producing higher yields in drier conditions and displaying resistance to several pests and diseases such as thrips [insects which feed on cowpeas] and Striga [a parasitic weed]. We expect these lines to be available to plant breeders by the end of 2015.”
Ousmane says the success of the cowpea component of TLI owes much to the pre-existing relationships the partners had before the project. “TLI was an extension of a USAID collaborative project [Bean/Cowpea Collaborative Research Support Program] we had been working on since 2002,” he explains. “I had also crossed paths with breeders in Senegal, Burkina Faso and USA many times when I worked with the Institute of Agricultural Research for Development [IRAD] in Cameroon.”
Striga in a cowpea plot.
Ousmane was with IRAD in his home country of Cameroon from 1990 to 2007. He also worked by correspondence during this time to complete both his Master’s and Doctoral degrees in Plant Breeding and Genomics from the University of Purdue in Indiana, USA. His thesis involved characterising and mapping Striga resistance in cowpeas. Striga is a parasitic weed widespread in West Africa, which can reduce susceptible cultivar yields by up to 100 percent. Resistance within the host plant is the only practical control method (see ‘Cowpea in between’, GCP Partner and Product Highlights 2006, page 23).
A trader sells cowpeas in Moniya market, Ibadan, Nigeria.
Taking the lead in the Community of Practice
In 2011, in addition to his TLI and Product Delivery Coordinator roles, Ousmane became the coordinator of the Cowpea Community of Practice (CoP) – a newly created network founded by GCP to develop capacity in Africa and help GCP researchers share their new expertise in molecular breeding.
“The CoP was designed for cowpea researchers and people interested in cowpeas to ask questions and to share their expertise and knowledge, particularly with people who don’t have the experience, such as graduate students or breeders new to cowpeas,” Ousmane explains. Members are from Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania and USA.
“My role as coordinator is to collect ideas, find funding opportunities, and understand member expertise and resources so I can direct members of the community to the right people.”
Ghanaian farmer Alanig Bawa drying cowpeas.
Ousmane says the position has opened his eyes to all the new research going on in cowpea. The number of new researchers in the field also heartens him. “There are more researchers that are practising molecular breeding than ever before, which is great, because we can enhance their impact and efficiency in cowpea breeding.”
As membership grows, Ousmane is confident that the community and capacity that have developed with help from GCP will remain sustainable after GCP’s close at the end of 2014. “Governments in Nigeria and Burkina Faso understand the importance of cowpeas and are investing in our research. As the set of skills and the number of personnel grow in other sub-Saharan countries, we are confident that cowpea research will expand and produce higher yielding varieties for their farmers.”
Beyond 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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
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.
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.
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.
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!”
Across Africa, governments and scientists alike are heralding groundnuts’ potential to lead resource-poor farmers out of poverty.
Around 5,000 years ago in the north of Argentina, two species of wild groundnuts got together to produce a natural hybrid. The result of this pairing is the groundnut grown today across the globe, particularly in Africa and Asia. Now, scientists are discovering the treasures hidden in the genes of these ancient ancestors.
Nearly half of the world’s groundnut growing area lies within the African continent, yet Africa’s production of the legume has, until recently, accounted for only 25 percent of global yield. Drought, pests, diseases and contamination are all culprits in reducing yields and quality. But through the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP), scientists have been developing improved varieties using genes from the plant’s ancient ancestors. These new varieties are destined to make great strides towards alleviating poverty in some of the world’s most resource-poor countries.
A Ugandan farmer at work weeding her groundnut field.
A grounding in the history of Africa’s groundnuts
From simple bar snack in the west to staple food in developing countries, groundnuts – also commonly known as peanuts – have a place in the lives of many peoples across the world. First domesticated in the lush valleys of Paraguay, groundnuts have been successfully bred and cultivated for millennia. Today they form a billion-dollar industry in China, India and the USA, while also sustaining the livelihoods of millions of farming families across Africa and Asia.
Groundnuts have good potential for sustaining a strong African export industry in future, while providing a great source of nutrition for Africa’s regional farming families.
“We believe that by using what we have learnt through GCP, we will be able to boost the production and exportation of groundnuts from Senegal to European countries, and even to Asian countries,” says Issa. “So it’s very, very important for us.”
Harvested groundnuts in Senegal.
How Africa lost its groundnut export market
Groundnuts in distress under drought conditions.
In Africa, groundnuts have mostly been grown by impoverished smallholder farmers, in infertile soils and dryland areas where rainfall is both low and erratic. Drought and disease cause about USD 500 million worth of losses to groundnut production in Africa every year.
“Because groundnut is self-pollinating, most of the time poor farmers can recycle the seed and keep growing it over and over,” Patrick says. “But for such a crop you need to refresh the seed frequently, and after a certain period you should cull it. So the absence of, or limited access to, improved seed for farmers is one of the big challenges we have. Because of this, productivity is generally less than 50 percent of what would be expected.”
Rosette virus damage to groundnut above and below ground.
Diseases such as the devastating groundnut rosette virus – which is only found in Africa and has been known to completely wipe out crops in some areas – as well as pests and preharvest seed contamination have all limited crop yields and quality and have subsequently shut out Africa’s groundnuts from export markets.
The biggest blow for Africa came in the 1980s from a carcinogenic fungal toxin known as aflatoxin, explains Patrick.
Aflatoxin-contaminated groundnut kernels from Mozambique.
Aflatoxin is produced by mould species of the genus Aspergillus, which can naturally occur in the soil in which groundnuts are grown. When the fungus infects the legume it produces a toxin which, if consumed in high enough quantities, can be fatal or cause cancer. Groundnut crops the world over are menaced by aflatoxin, but Africa lost its export market because of high contamination levels.
“That’s why a substantial focus of the GCP research programme has been to develop varieties of groundnuts with resistance to the fungus,” says Patrick.
After a decade of GCP support, a suite of new groundnut varieties representing a broad diversity of characteristics is expected to be rolled out in the next two or three years. This suite will provide a solid genetic base of resistance from which today’s best commercial varieties can be improved, so the levels of aflatoxin contamination in the field can ultimately be reduced.
Ancestral genes could hold the key to drought tolerance and disease resistance
The sequencing work has given breeders access to 96 percent of all groundnut genes and provided the molecular map needed to breed drought-tolerant and disease-resistant higher-yielding varieties, faster.
“Genetically, the groundnut has always been a really tough nut to crack,” says GCP collaborator David Bertioli, from the University of Brasilia in Brazil. “It has a complex genetic structure, narrow genetic diversity and a reputation for being slow and difficult to breed. Until its genome was sequenced, the groundnut was bred relatively blindly compared to other crops, so it has remained among the less studied crops,” he says.
With the successful genome sequencing, however, researchers can now understand groundnut breeding in ways they could only dream of before.
“Working with a wild species allows you to bring in new versions of genes that are valuable for the crop, like disease resistance, and also other unexpected things, like improved yield under drought,” David says. “Even things like seed size can be altered this way, which you don’t really expect.”
The sequencing of the groundnut genome was funded by The Peanut Foundation, Mars Inc. and three Chinese academies (the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, the Henan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and the Shandong Academy of Agricultural Sciences), but David credits GCP work for paving the way. “GCP research built up the populations and genetic maps that laid the groundwork for the material that then went on to be sequenced.”
Chair of GCP’s Consortium Committee, David Hoisington – formerly ICRISAT’s Director of Research and now Senior Research Scientist and Program Director at the University of Georgia – says the sequencing could be a huge step forward for boosting agriculture in developing countries.
“Researchers and plant breeders now have much better tools available to breed more productive and more resilient groundnut varieties, with improved yields and better nutrition,” he says.
These resilient varieties should be available to farmers across Africa within a few years.
Genetics alone will not lift productivity – farmers’ local knowledge is vital
Improvements in the yield, quality and share of the global market of groundnuts produced by developing countries are already being seen as a result of GCP support, says Vincent Vadez. “But for this trend to continue, the crop’s ability to tolerate drought and resist diseases must be improved without increasing the use of costly chemicals that most resource-poor farmers simply cannot afford,” he says.
While genetic improvements are fundamental to developing the disease resistance and drought tolerance so desperately needed by African farmers, there are other important factors that can influence the overall outcome of a breeding programme, he explains. Understanding the plant itself, the soil and the climate of a region are all vital in creating the kinds of varieties farmers need and can grow in their fields.
Kenyan groundnut farmer Patrick Odima with some of his crop.
“I have grown increasingly convinced that overlooking these aspects in our genetic improvements would be to our peril,” Vincent warns. “There are big gains to be made from looking at very simple sorts of agronomic management changes, like sowing density – the number of seeds you plant per square metre. Groundnuts are often cultivated at seeding rates that are unlikely to achieve the best possible yields, especially when they’re grown in infertile soils.”
For Omari Mponda, now Director of Tanzania’s Agricultural Research Institute at Naliendele (ARI–Naliendele), previously Zonal Research Coordinator and plant breeder, and country groundnut research leader for GCP’s Tropical Legumes I project (TLI; see box below), combining good genetics with sound agronomic management is a matter of success or failure for any crop-breeding programme, especially in poverty-stricken countries.
“Molecular markers by themselves will not address the productivity on the ground,” he says, agreeing with Vincent. “A new variety of groundnut may have very good resistance, but its pods may be too hard, making shelling very difficult. This does not help the poor people, because they can’t open the shells with their bare hands.”
And helping the poor of Africa is the real issue, Omari says. “We must remind ourselves of that.”
This means listening to the farmers: “It means finding out what they think and experience, and using that local knowledge. Only then should the genetics come in. We need to focus on the connections between local knowledge and scientific knowledge. This is vital.”
Participants at a farmer field day in Mali interact with ICRISAT staff and examine different groundnut varieties and books on aflatoxin control and management options.
Local knowledge and high-end genetics working together in Tanzania
Like Malawi, Tanzania has also experienced the full spectrum of constraints to groundnut production – from drought, aflatoxin contamination, poor soil and limited access to new seed, to a lack of government extension officers visiting farmers to ensure they have the knowledge and skills needed to improve their farming practices and productivity.
Although more than one million hectares of Tanzania is groundnut cropping land, the resources supplied by the government have until now been minimal, says Omari, compared to those received for traditional cash crops such as cashews and coffee.
A farmer and her children near Dodoma, Tanzania, an area where climate change is causing increasing heat and drought. Groundnut is an important crop for local famers, forming the basis of their livelihood together with maize and livestock.
“But the groundnut is now viewed differently by the government in my country as a result of GCP’s catalytic efforts,” Omari says. “More resources are being put into groundnut research.”
“They saw it was impossible for us to irrigate our crops with only one borehole, for instance, so they injected new funds into our irrigation system. We now have two boreholes and a whole new system, which has helped expand the seed production flow. Without GCP, this probably wouldn’t have happened.”
Irrigation, for Omari, ultimately means being able to get varieties to the farmers much faster: “maybe three times as fast,” he says. “This means we’ll be able to speed up the multiplication of seeds – in the past we were relying on rainfed seed, which took longer to bulk and get to farmers.”
With such practical outcomes from GCP’s research and funding efforts and the new genetic resources becoming available, breeders like Omari see a bright future for groundnut research in Tanzania.
Groundnut farmer near Dodoma, Tanzania.
The gains being made at Naliendele are not only sustainable, Omari explains, but have given the researchers independence and autonomy. “Before we were only learning – now we have become experts in what we do.”
Prior to GCP, Omari and his colleagues were used to conventional breeding and lacked access to cutting-edge science.
“We used to depend on germplasm supplied to us by ICRISAT, but now we see the value in learning to use molecular markers in groundnut breeding to grow our own crosses, and we are rapidly advancing to a functional breeding programme in Tanzania.”
Omari says he and his team now look forward to the next phase of their research, when they expect to make impact by practically applying their knowledge to groundnut production in Tanzania.
Similar breeding success in Senegal
Harvesting groundnuts in Senegal.
Issa Faye became involved in GCP in 2008 when the programme partly funded his PhD in fresh seed dormancy in groundnuts. “I was an example of a young scientist who was trained and helped by GCP in groundnut research,” he says.
“I remember when I was just starting my thesis, my supervisor would say, ‘You are very lucky because you will not be limited to using conventional breeding. You are starting at a time when GCP funding is allowing us to use marker-assisted selection [MAS] in our breeding programme’.”
The importance of MAS in groundnut breeding, Issa says, cannot be overstated.
“It is very difficult to distinguish varieties of cultivated groundnut because most of them are morphologically very similar. But if you use molecular markers you can easily distinguish them and know the diversity of the matter you are using, which makes your programme more efficient. It makes it easier to develop varieties, compared to the conventional breeding programme we were using before we started working with GCP.”
By using markers that are known to be linked to useful genes for traits such as drought tolerance, disease resistance, or resistance to aflatoxin-producing fungi, breeders can test plant materials to see whether or not they are present. This helps them to select the best parent plants to use in their crosses, and accurately identify which of the progeny have inherited the gene or genes in question without having to grow them all to maturity, saving time and money.
These women in Salima District, Malawi, boil groundnuts at home and carry their tubs to the Siyasiya roadside market.
Senegal, like other developing countries, does not have enough of its own resources for funding research activities, explains Issa. “We can say we are quite lucky here because we have a well-developed and well-equipped lab, which is a good platform for doing molecular MAS. But we need to keep improving it if we want to be on the top. We need more human resources and more equipment for boosting all the breeding programmes in Senegal and across other regions of West Africa.”
Recently, Issa says, the Senegalese government has demonstrated awareness of the importance of supporting these activities. “We think that we will be receiving more funds from the government because they have seen that it’s a kind of investment. If you want to develop agriculture, you need to support research. Funding from the government will be more important in the coming years,” he says.
“Now that we have resources developed through GCP, we hope that some drought-tolerant varieties will come and will be very useful for farmers in Senegal and even for other countries in West Africa that are facing drought.”
It’s all about poverty
“The achievements of GCP in groundnut research are just the beginning,” says Vincent. The legacy of the new breeding material GCP has provided, he says, is that it is destined to form the basis of new and ongoing research programmes, putting research well ahead of where it would otherwise have been.
“There wasn’t time within the scope of GCP to develop finished varieties because that takes such a long time, but these products will come,” he says.
For Vincent, diverse partnerships facilitated by GCP have been essential for this to happen. “The groundnut work led by ICRISAT and collaborators in the target countries – Malawi, Senegal, and Tanzania – has been continuously moving forward.”
Groundnut harvesting at Chitedze Agriculture Research Station, Malawi.
Issa agrees: “It was fantastic to be involved in this programme. We know each other now and this will ease our collaborations. We hope to keep working with all the community, and that will obviously have a positive impact on our work.”
For Omari, a lack of such community and collaboration can only mean failure when it comes to addressing poverty.
“If we all worked in isolation, a lot of money would be spent developing new varieties but nothing would change on the ground,” he says. “Our work in Tanzania is all about the problem of poverty, and as scientists we want to make sure the new varieties are highly productive for the farmers around our area. This means we need to work closely with members of the agricultural industry, as a team.”
Omari says he and his colleagues see themselves as facilitators between the farmers of Tanzania and the ‘upstream end’ of science represented by ICRISAT and GCP. “We are responsible for bringing these two ends together and making the collaboration work,” he says.
Only from there can we come up with improved technologies that will really succeed at helping to reduce poverty in Africa.”
As climate change threatens to aggravate poverty more and more in the future, the highly nutritious, drought-tolerant groundnut may well be essential to sustain a rapidly expanding global population.
By developing new, robust varieties with improved adaptation to drought, GCP researchers are well on the way to increasing the productivity and profitability of the groundnut in some of the poorest regions of Africa, shifting the identity of the humble nut to potential crop champion for future generations.
Oswin Madzonga, Scientific Officer at ICRISAT-Lilongwe, visits on-farm trials near Chitala Research Station in Salima, Malawi, where promising disesase-resistant varieties are being tested real life conditions.
Each year, millions of people in Senegal go hungry for several months, many surviving on no more than one meal a day. Locals call this time soudure – the hungry period. It typically lasts from June through to September, when previous winter and spring cereal supplies are exhausted and people wait anxiously for a bountiful autumn cereal harvest.
During this period, a bowl of fresh green cowpea pods once a day is the best that many people can hope for. Cowpeas are the first summer crop to mature, with some varieties ready to harvest in as little as 60 days.
While cowpeas provide valued food security in Africa, yields remain low. In Senegal, average cowpea yields are 450 kilograms per hectare, a mere 10–30 percent of their potential. This poor productivity is primarily because of losses due to insects and diseases, but is sometimes further compounded by chronic drought.
In 2007, the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP) brought together a team of plant breeders and geneticists from Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal and the USA to collaborate on cowpea. Their goal was to breed varieties that would be higher yielding, drought tolerant and resistant to pests and diseases, and so help secure and improve local cowpea production in sub-Saharan African countries.
A trader selling cowpea at Bodija market, Ibadan, Nigeria.
Cowpea production – almost all of it comes from Africa
A type of legume originating in West Africa, cowpeas are also known as niébé in francophone Africa and as black-eyed peas in the USA. They are well adapted to drier, warmer regions and grow well in poor soils. In Africa, they are mostly grown in the hot, drought-prone savannas and very arid sub-Saharan regions, often together with pearl millet and sorghum.
Nutritionally, cowpeas are a major source of dietary protein in many developing countries. Young leaves, unripe pods and peas are used as vegetables, and the mature grain is processed for various snacks and main meal dishes. As a cash crop, both for grain and animal fodder, cowpea is highly valued in sub-Saharan Africa.
Worldwide, an estimated 14.5 million hectares of land is planted with cowpea each year. Global production of dried cowpeas in 2010 was 5.5 million tonnes, 94 percent of which was grown in Africa.
In 2011, Senegal experienced its third drought within a decade. Low and erratic rainfall led to poor harvests in 2011 and 2012: yields of cereal crops (wheat, barley and maize) fell by 36 percent compared to 2010. Consequently, the hungry period in 2012 started three months earlier than usual, making gap-fillers like cowpea even more important. In fact, cereal production in sub-Saharan African countries has not seen substantial growth over the last two decades – total area, yield and production grew by only 4.3 percent, 1.5 percent and 5.8 percent, respectively.
Climate change is expected to further compound this situation across sub-Saharan Africa. Droughts are forecast to occur more frequently, weakening plants and making them more vulnerable to pests and diseases.
“Improved varieties of cowpeas are urgently needed to narrow the gap between actual and potential yields,” says Ndiaga. “They will not only provide security to farmers in the face of climate change, but will also help with food security and overall livelihoods.”
Farmers in Northern Nigeria transport their cowpea harvest.
Mapping the cowpea genome
For over 30 years, Phil Roberts, a professor in the Department of Nematology at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), has been breeding new varieties of cowpea. “UCR has a long history of research in cowpea breeding that goes back to the mid-seventies,” explains Phil. “One of the reasons we were commissioned by GCP in 2007 was to use our experience, particularly in using molecular breeding, to help African cowpea-breeding programmes produce higher yielding cowpeas.”
For seven years, Phil and his team at UCR coordinated the cowpea component of the Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project led by GCP (see box below). The objective of this work was to advance cowpea breeding by applying modern, molecular breeding techniques, tools and knowledge to develop lines and varieties with drought tolerance and resistance to pests and diseases in the sub-Saharan African countries Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Nigeria and Senegal.
The molecular breeding technology that UCR uses for cowpeas is based on finding genes that help cowpea plants tolerate insects and diseases, identifying markers that can indicate the presence of known genes, and using these to incorporate valuable genes into higher yielding varieties.
“Using molecular breeding techniques is a lot easier and quicker, and certainly less hit-or-miss, than conventional breeding techniques,” says Phil. “We can shorten the time needed to breed better adapted cowpea varieties preferred by farmers and markets.”
Phil explains that the first priority of the project was to map the cowpea genome.
“The map helps us locate the genes that play a role in expressing key traits such as drought tolerance, disease resistance or pest resistance,” says Phil. “Once we know where these genes are, we can use molecular marker tools to identify and help select for the traits. This is a lot quicker than growing the plant and observing if the trait is present or not.”
To use an analogy, think of the plant’s genome as a story: its words are the plant’s genes, and a molecular marker works as a text highlighter. Molecular markers are not precise enough to highlight specific words (genes), but they can highlight sentences (genomic regions) that contain these words (genes), making it easier and quicker to identify which plants have them. Traditionally, breeders have needed to grow plants to maturity under appropriately challenging conditions to see which ones are likely to have useful traits, but by using markers to flag valuable genes they are able to largely skip this step, and test large amounts of material to choose the best parents for their crosses, then check which of the progeny have inherited the gene or genes.
Diversity of cowpea seed.
Breeding new varieties faster, using modern techniques
MARS identifies regions of the genome that control important traits. In the case of cowpeas, these include drought tolerance and insect resistance. It uses molecular markers to explore more combinations in the plant populations, thus increasing breeding efficiency.
MABC is the simplest form of marker-assisted breeding, in which the goal is to incorporate a major gene from an agronomically inferior source (the donor parent) into an elite cultivar or breeding line (the recurrent parent). Major genes by themselves have a significant effect; it’s therefore easier to find a major gene associated with a desired trait, than having to find and clone several minor genes. The aim is to produce a line made up almost entirely of the recurrent parent genotype, with only the selected major gene from the donor parent.
Using the genome map and molecular markers, the UCR team identified 30 cowpea lines with drought tolerance and pest resistance from 5,000 varieties in its collection, providing the raw material for marker-assisted breeding. “Once we knew which lines had the drought-tolerance and pest-resistance genes we were looking for, we crossed them with high-yielding lines to develop 20 advanced cowpea lines, which our African partners field tested,” says Phil.
The lines underwent final field tests in 2014, and the best-yielding drought-tolerant lines will be used locally in Burkina Faso, Mozambique and Senegal to develop new higher yielding varieties that will be available to growers by 2016.
“While we are still some time off from releasing these varieties, we already feel we are two or three years ahead of where we would be if we were doing things using only conventional breeding methods,” says Ndiaga.
A parasitic Striga plant, in a cowpea experimental plot.
The genome map and molecular markers have helped cowpea breeders like Ousmane Boukar, cowpea breeder and Kano Station Representative with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), headquartered in Nigeria, to locate the genes in cowpeas that play a role in expressing desirable traits.
Ousmane, who was GCP’s cowpea Product Delivery Coordinator, says, “We have used this technology to develop advanced breeding lines that are producing higher yields in drier conditions and displaying resistance to several pests and diseases like thrips and Striga. We expect these lines to be available to plant breeders by the end of 2015.
“TLI has had a huge impact in Africa in terms of developing capacity to carry out marker-assisted breeding,” he says. “This form of breeding helps us to breed new varieties in three to five years instead of seven to ten years.”
Burkina Faso – evaluating new lines to improve the country’s economy
Cowpea is an important crop for the people of Burkina Faso. Over 10 million farmers produce on average 800,000 tonnes of cowpeas each year, making the country the third largest producer in the world, behind neighbours Nigeria and Niger.
Much of Burkina Faso’s cowpea crop is consumed domestically, but the government sees potential in increasing productivity for export to Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana in the south. This new venture would improve the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), which is the third lowest in the world.
“We’ve been working closely with UCR to evaluate advanced breeding lines that we can use in our own breeding programme. So far we have several promising lines, some of which breeders are using to create varieties for release to farmers – some as early as this year.”
Farmers in Burkina Faso discuss cowpea varieties during participatory varietal selection activities.
Outsourcing the molecular work
Issa says his team has mainly been using conventional breeding techniques and outsourcing the molecular breeding work to the UK and USA. “We send leaf samples to the UK to be genotyped by a private company [LGC Genomics], who then forward the data to UCR, who analyse it and tell us which plants contain the desired genes and would be suitable for crossing.”
The whole process takes four to six weeks, from taking the samples to making a decision on which plants to cross.
“This system works well for countries that don’t have the capacity or know-how to do the molecular work,” says Darshna Vyas, a plant genetics specialist with LGC Genomics. “Genotyping has advanced to a point where even larger labs around the world choose to outsource their genotyping work, as it is cheaper and quicker than if they were to equip their lab and do it themselves. We do hundreds of thousands of genotyping samples a day – day in, day out. It’s our business.”
Darshna says LGC Genomics have also developed plant kits, as a result of working more with GCP partners from developing countries. “We would receive plant tissue that was not properly packaged and had become mouldy on the journey. The plant kits help researchers package their tissue correctly. The genotyping data you get from undamaged tissue compared to damaged tissue is a thousand times better.”
Getting the genotyping expertise on the ground
A trader bagging cowpeas at Bodija market, Ibadan, Nigeria.
To reduce their African partners’ reliance on UCR, researchers from the university, including Phil, have been training young plant breeders and PhD students from collaborating institutes. Independent of the cowpea project, they have also been joining GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP) training events in Africa to help breeders understand the new technologies.
“All this capacity building we do really gets at the issue of leaving expertise on the ground when the project ends,” says Phil. “If these breeders don’t have the expertise to use the modern breeding technologies, then we won’t make much progress.”
GCP Capacity Building Theme Leader and TLI Project Manager Ndeye Ndack Diop has been impressed by UCR’s enthusiasm to build capacity in its partner countries. “Capacity building is a core objective for GCP and the TLI project,” says Ndeye Ndack. “While it is built into almost all GCP projects, UCR have gone over and above what was expected of them and contributed towards building capacity not only among its partner institutions, but in many other African national breeding institutes as well.”
One of Issa’s researchers at INERA, Jean-Baptiste de la Salle Tignegré, says the course helped him understand more about the background genetics, statistical analysis and data management involved in the process of molecular breeding. “Because of the course, we are now able to analyse the genotype data from LGC,” he says.
Mozambique – insects and drought are the problem
In 2010, the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane (UEM) joined the cowpea component of TLI, three years after the project started. “We were a little late to the party because we were busy setting up Mozambique’s first cowpea breeding programme, which only began in 2008,” recalls Rogerio Chiulele, a lecturer at the university’s Faculty of Agronomy and Forestry Engineering and lead scientist for cowpea research in Mozambique for TLI.
That year (2008), UEM received a GCP Capacity building à la carte grant to establish a cowpea-breeding programme for addressing some of the constraints limiting cowpea production and productivity, particularly drought, pests and diseases.
As in Burkina Faso and Senegal, in Mozambique cowpeas are an important source of food, for both protein and profit, particularly for the poor. Cowpeas rank as the fourth most cultivated crop in Mozambique, accounting for about nine percent of the total cultivated area, or an estimated four million hectares of smallholder farms.
Cowpea plants infested by aphids.
Rogerio says that farmers in his country, just as in other parts of Africa, struggle to reach their full yield potential because of climate, pests and diseases. “Several insect pests – such as aphids, flower thrips, nematodes and pod-sucking pests – can substantially reduce cowpea yield and productivity in Mozambique,” he says.
“Cowpea aphids can cause problems at any time in the growing season, but are most damaging during dry weather when they infest seedlings that are stressed from lack of water. In wetter parts of the country, flower thrips – which feed on floral buds – are the most damaging insect pest.” These insects are also major pests in Burkina Faso and Senegal, along with hairy caterpillar (Amsacta moloneyi), which can completely destroy swaths of cowpea seedlings.
Rogerio says breeding for insect resistance and drought tolerance, using marker-assisted techniques, improves breeders’ chances of increased cowpea productivity. “Productivity is key to increasing rural incomes, and new resources can then be invested in other activities that help boost total family income,” says Rogerio. “These new breeding techniques will help us achieve this quicker.”
Three high-yielding varieties to hit the Mozambique market in 2015
Mature cowpea pods ready for harvesting.
Since 2010, Rogerio’s team have quickly caught up to Burkina Faso and Senegal and plan to release three higher yielding new lines with drought tolerance in 2015. One of these lines, CB46, is based on a local cowpea variety crossed with a UCR-sourced American black-eyed pea variety that displays drought tolerance, which potentially has huge market appeal.
“Local varieties fetch, on average, half a US dollar per kilogram, compared to black-eyed pea varieties, whose price is in the region of four to five US dollars,” says Rogerio. “Obviously this is beneficial to the growers, but the benefits for consumers are just as appealing. The peas are better quality and tastier, and they take half as long to cook compared to local varieties.”
All these extra qualities are important to consider in any breeding programme and are a key objective of the Tropical Legume II (TLII) project (see box above). TLII activities, led by ICRISAT, seek to apply products from TLI to make an impact among farmers.
“TLII focuses on translating research outputs from TLI into tangible products, including new varieties,” says Ousmane Boukar, who works closely with Ndiaga, Issa and Rogerio in TLI and TLII.
Building a community of breeders to sustain success
Cowpea flower with developing pods.
Part of Ousmane’s GCP role as Product Delivery Coordinator for cowpeas was to lead a network of African cowpea and soybean breeders, and he champions the need for breeders to share information and materials as well as collaborating in other ways so as to sustain their breeding programmes post-GCP.
“To sustain integrated breeding practices post-2014, GCP has established Communities of Practice (CoP) that are discipline- and commodity-oriented,” says Ndeye Ndack. “The ultimate goal is to provide a platform for community problem solving, idea generation and information sharing.”
Ousmane says the core of this community was already alive and well before the CoP. “Ndiaga, Issa and I have over 80 years combined experience working on cowpea. We have continually crossed paths and have even been working together on other non-GCP projects over the past seven years.”
One such project the trio worked together on was to release a new drought-tolerant cowpea breeding line, IT97K-499-35, in Nigeria. “The performance of this variety impressed farmers in Mali, who named it jiffigui, which means ‘hope’,” says Ousmane. “We shared these new lines with our partners in Mali and Niger so they could conduct adaptation trials in their own countries.”
For young breeders like Rogerio, the CoP has provided an opportunity to meet and learn from these older partners. “I’ve really enjoyed our annual project meetings and feeling more a part of the world of cowpea breeding, particularly since we in Mozambique are isolated geographically from larger cowpea-producing countries in West Africa.”
For Phil Roberts, instances where more-established researchers mentor younger researchers in different countries give him hope that all the work UCR has done to install new breeding techniques will pay off. “Young researchers represent the future. If they can establish a foothold in breeding programmes in their national programmes, they can make an impact. Beyond having the know-how, it is vital to have the support of the national programme to develop modern breeding effort in cowpea – or any crop.”
Setting up breeders for the next 20 years
Farmer harvesting mature cowpea pods.
In Senegal, Ndiaga is hopeful that the work that the GCP project has accomplished has set up cowpea breeders in his country and others for the next 20 years.
“Both GCP’s and UCR’s commitment to build capacity in developing countries like Senegal cannot be valued less than the new higher yielding, drought-tolerant varieties that we are breeding,” says Ndiaga. “They have provided us with the tools and skills now to continue this research well into the future.
“We are close to releasing several new drought-tolerant and pest- and disease-resistant lines, which is our ultimate goal towards securing Senegal’s food and helping minimise the impact of the hungry period.”