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.”
A farmer harvests her pearl millet crop in Ghana’s Upper West Region.
Pearl millet is the only cereal crop that can be grown in some of the hottest and driest regions of Asia and Africa. It is a staple provider of food, nutrition and income for millions of resource-poor people living on these harsh agricultural lands.
Even though pearl millet is well adapted to growing in areas characterised by drought, poor soil fertility and high temperatures, “there are limited genetic tools available for this orphan crop,” reported researcher Tom Hash at the International Crop Science Congress 10 years ago.
“The people who relied on this crop in such extreme environments had not benefitted from the ‘biotechnology revolution’, or even the ‘green revolution’ that dramatically increased food grain production on irrigated lands over a generation ago,” adds Tom, now Principal Scientist (Millet Breeding) in the Dryland Cereals Research Program of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). This lack of research dividends was despite the fact that pearl millet is the sixth most important cereal crop globally.
The use of genetic technologies to improve pearl millet had already made some advances through work carried out in the United Kingdom. The GCP initiative was established to improve food security in developing countries by expanding such available genetic work to create crops bred to tolerate drought, disease and poor soils.
With financial support from GCP, and with the benefit of lessons learnt from parallel GCP genetic research, ICRISAT scientists were able to develop more advanced tools for breeding pearl millet.
He says it is the high protein content of pearl millet that makes it such a crucial crop for developing countries – in Africa, this is the reason people use pearl millet for weaning babies.
“It was interesting to us that African people have used pearl millet as a weaning food for millennia. The reason why was not clear to us until we assessed the protein content,” says Mark. “Its seed has 13–22 percent protein, remarkable for a cereal crop, whereas maize has only eight percent protein, and sorghum has only two percent digestible protein.”
Pearl millet growing in Kenya.
Tom Hash agrees, adding: “More importantly, pearl millet grain has much higher levels of the critically important mineral micronutrients iron and zinc, which are important for neurological and immune system development.
“These mineral micronutrients, although not present in a highly available form, can improve blood iron levels when used in traditional pearl millet-based foods. Pearl millet grain, when fed to poultry, can provide a potentially important source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are also essential for normal neurological development.”
Pearl millet endowed with genetic potential
A farmer with his pearl millet harvest in India.
In a treasure-trove of plant genetic resources, thousands of samples, or accessions, of pearl millet and its wild relatives are kept at ICRISAT’s gene banks in India and Niger.
For pearl millet alone, in 2004 ICRISAT had 21,594 types of germplasm in its vaults at its headquarters in India. This represents a huge reservoir of genetic diversity that can be mined for data and for genetic traits that can be used to improve pearl millet and other crops.
Between 2005 and 2007, with support from GCP, scientists from ICRISAT set to work to do just that, mining these resources for qualities based on observed traits, geographical origin and taxonomy.
Hari D Upadhyaya, Principal Scientist and Director of Genebank at ICRISAT, led the task of developing and genotyping a ‘composite collection’ of pearl millet. To do this, the team created a selection that reduced 21,594 accessions down to 1,021. This collection includes lines that are tolerant to drought, heat and soil salinity; others resistant to blast, downy mildew, ergot, rust and smut; and accessions resistant to multiple diseases.
A traditional pearl millet variety growing in India.
The collection also includes types of pearl millet with high seed iron and zinc content (from traditional farmer varieties, or landraces, from Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Togo), high seed protein content, high stalk sugar content, and other known elite breeding varieties.
The final collection comprised 710 landraces, 251 advanced breeding lines, and 60 accessions from seven wild species.
The GCP-supported scientists then used molecular markers to fingerprint the DNA of plants grown from the collection. Molecular markers are known variations in the sequence of the genetic code, found in different versions within a species, which act as flags in the genome sequence. Some individual markers may be associated with particular useful genes, but markers are useful even without known associations, as the different flags can be compared between samples. In the pearl millet research, scientists searched for similarities and differences among these DNA markers to assess how closely or distantly related the 1,021 accessions were to each other.
This was not only a big step forward for the body of scientific knowledge on pearl millet, but also for the knowledge and skills of the scientists involved. “The GCP work did make some significant contributions to pearl millet research,” says Tom, “mainly by helping a critical mass of scientists working on pearl millet to learn how to appropriately use the genetic tools that have been developed in better-studied fungi, plants and animals (including people).”
GCP extends know-how to Africa
Comparisons of good and bad pearl millet yields in Ghana’s Upper West Region, which has suffered failed rains and rising temperatures.
The semiarid areas of northern and eastern Uganda are home to a rich history and culture, but they are difficult environments for successful food production and security.
In this region, pearl millet is grown for both commercial and local consumption. Its yields, although below the global average, are reasonable given that it is grown on poor sandy soils where other crops fail. Yet despite being a survivor in these harsh drylands, pearl millet can still be affected by severe drought and disease.
GCP helped kick-start work to tackle these problems. With financial support from GCP, and through ACCI, Geofrey Lubade, a scientist from Uganda, was able to study and explore breeding pearl millet that would be suitable for northern Uganda and have higher yields, drought tolerance and rust resistance.
Geofrey now plans to develop the best of his pearl millet lines for registration and release in Uganda, which he expects will go a long way in helping the resource-poor.
But Geofrey’s success is just one example of the benefits from GCP-support. Thanks to GCP, Mark Laing says that his students at ACCI have learnt invaluable skills that save significant time and money in the plant-breeding process.
“Many of our students, with GCP support, have been involved in diversity studies to select for desirable traits,” says Mark – and these students are now working on releasing new crop varieties.
He says that African scientists directly benefitted from the GCP grants for training in biotechnology and genetic studies.
Their work, along with that of a number of other scientists, will have a huge impact on plant breeding in developing countries – long term.
A farmer inspects his millet crop in northwest Ghana.
As Mark explains, once breeders have built up a head of steam there is no stopping them. “Plant breeders take time to start releasing varieties, but once they get started, then they can keep generating new varieties every year for many years,” he says. “And a good variety can have a very long life, even more than 50 years.
“We have already had a significant impact on plant breeding in some African countries,” says Mark. But perhaps more importantly, he says, the work has changed the status of plant breeding and pearl millets as a subject: “It used to be disregarded, but now it is taken seriously as a way to have an impact on agriculture.”
For research and breeding products, see the GCP Product Catalogue and search for pearl millet.
Rice plays a key role in global food security, particularly in Asia, where 90 percent of the world’s rice is grown and eaten. By 2050, Asia’s population is estimated to grow by one billion to 5.2 billion people, who will continue to depend on rice as their major staple food.
But with rising demand for rice has also come increasing salinity, droughts and other stresses, along with decreasing areas of land available for farming the crop.
Key ingredient in the rice research fest was GCP’s relationship with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), headquartered in The Philippines. GCP supported IRRI in its endeavours to use the latest molecular plant-breeding techniques, along with traditional plant-breeding tools, to develop rice crops better able to cope with various stresses and still be productive.
“These ‘super’ crops will revolutionise rice farming,” says IRRI Director General Robert Zeigler, who was also the first Director of GCP.
Climate change is one of the major threats facing rice production. As sea levels rise, salt water enters further up rivers with the high tides and affects rice production areas.
Each year in Bangladesh, during the boro rice season from November to May, salinity is so high that a white film of salt covers the country’s coastal paddy fields. For Bangladeshi farmers, this white colour is a warning sign that their land is ‘sick’. Around the world, Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and parts of Africa are most affected by increasing salinity.
Right from the beginning of GCP, salinity was a problem firmly on the rice research agenda.
Highly saline soils in India (left), and a close-up showing a surface crust of salt on afflicted soil (right).
Leading this research was IRRI plant physiologist Abdelbagi Ismail, who dreamed of the ‘super’ rice crop that could “tolerate salinity, drought and submergence”.
Abdelbagi has managed and overseen most of the progress made during the discovery of a major genetic region, or quantitative trait locus (QTL), associated with salinity tolerance and named Saltol.
Abdelbagi Ismail examines rice plants in the field in Bangladesh.
Its insertion into well-known rice varieties used by farmers in Bangladesh, Indonesia and The Philippines is part of the revolution taking place in rice research.
Abdelbagi says Saltol was mapped and markers were developed for its use in breeding more salt-tolerant rice varieties. Its salt-tolerance code is now being transferred into several varieties evaluated with IRRI partners in South and Southeast Asia.
“These projects also provided opportunities for both degree training and non-degree training to several of our partners in the countries involved,” he adds.
“Partnerships are crucial for us to build the capacity of the researchers in these countries and to ensure our outputs and outcomes reach the farmers that need them.
“All our partners benefitted from salt-tolerant varieties developed conventionally through this project, and they also provided pipelines for uptake and dissemination by farmers.”
Having developed new lines following the discovery of the Saltol QTL, Abdelbagi’s GCP-supported team trained plant breeders in country programmes to successfully breed for salt tolerance and other stresses.
In this way, Abdelbagi says, they are improving the capacity of researchers in developing countries to take up new breeding techniques, such as the use of molecular markers. “This can reduce the time it takes to breed new varieties, from six to ten years at the moment, down to two or three years,” he says.
This means that benefits to smallholder rice farmers struggling with salinity will happen sooner rather than later. And Abdelbagi credits GCP’s partnership approach, working directly with the countries in need, for the success so far.
“The salt-tolerant varieties are now being widely distributed,” he says. “Some of these varieties have doubled farmers’ productivity in affected areas.
“The work developed technologies of value to our needy farmers.
“We do believe this is the start of a second Green Revolution, especially for those who farm in less favourable areas and that missed this opportunity during the first Green Revolution.”
Partnership approach key to new rice gene for uptake of phosphorus
More than 60 percent of rainfed lowland rice is produced on poor and problem soils, including those that are naturally low in phosphorus. This is an essential for nutrient growing crops, but providing phosphorus through fertilisers is costly and unfeasible for many smallholder rice growers.
IRRI’s Sheryl Catausan prepares the roots of a rice plant for scanning as part of the work of the PSTOL1, phosphorus uptake research team at IRRI.
This problem was the focus of GCP’s rice phosphorus-uptake project led by IRRI molecular biologist Sigrid Heuer.
The project was enormously successful, with its discovery of the PSTOL1 (‘phosphorus starvation tolerance 1’) gene within the Pup1 locus, which was published in the prestigious journal Nature.
“We wanted it in Nature for a couple of reasons,” she says. “To raise awareness about phosphorus deficiency and phosphorus being a limited resource, especially in poorer countries; and to draw attention to how we do molecular breeding these days, which is a speedier, easier and more cost-effective approach to developing crops that have the potential to alleviate such problems.”
Following the PSTOL1 discovery, researchers are now working with developing-country researchers and extension agencies to help them understand how to breed local varieties of rice that can be grown in phosphorus-deficient soils. They are also collaborating with other crop breeders looking to breed similar maize, sorghum and wheat varieties.
Tobias Kretzschmar, a molecular biologist with IRRI, says that GCP’s partnership approach was the key to the project having an impact on the rice farmers who needed it most.
“For me, the collaborations that were forged through these inter-institutional projects made the difference,” he says.
Sigrid agrees: “GCP was always there supporting us and giving us confidence, even when we were not sure.”
Solving the insoluble: a gene for drought tolerance
Rice is a crop that not only needs water, but loves water. So developing a drought-tolerant rice variety is a quest to find a seemingly impossible gene.
However, GCP-supported researchers did just that: they solved the insoluble.
“They were very successful in terms of getting drought tolerance,” says Hei Leung of IRRI, who was GCP Subprogramme Leader for the Comparative Genomics Research Initiative between 2004 and 2007, and also a Principal Investigator for the Rice Research Initiative. “They’re now getting a 1.5 tonne rice yield advantage under water stress. I mean, that’s unheard of! This is a crop that needs water.
“This is one of GCP’s big success stories; that you can actually get drought tolerance is a seemingly impossible task for a water-loving rice plant.”
As Subprogramme Leader, Hei played a critical role in the creation, management, delivery and communication of a wide portfolio of research projects. He credits the nature of how GCP was set up for accelerating the breeding programme for drought-tolerant rice.
“The advantage of GCP is that it is run by a small group of people who can make fast decisions,” he says. “This means they can respond to the needs of researchers: ‘Okay, we are going to invest on that. We’re going to have a meeting on this’.
“The real advantage of GCP is its agility. Usually with other organisations you have new ideas and then have to slave away for a year to get the funding to implement them. But GCP was quick.”
Hei Leung (right) explains rice screening processes to a visiting scholar at IRRI.
IRRI and GCP deliver genetic resources to those who need them most
Tobias says one of the main objectives of GCP and IRRI is to make genetic stocks available to breeders, particularly in developing countries.
“Without that, IRRI would fail in its central mission to reduce hunger and poverty,” he says. “In order to achieve this mission, tight collaboration with our agricultural and extension partners in other countries is the key.”
In fact, this idea of protecting the future through genetic material was influential in the choice of GCP as a CGIAR Challenge Program name. Hei, who was involved from the start with GCP, talks about the meeting in a Rome pizzeria where participants came up with the name: “When we talk about ‘generation’, we are really talking about the work we do with genetic diversity; it is about the future generation,” he says.
Part of that future generation is about sharing genetic resources or stocks, but first the genetic diversity of such stocks needs to be characterised. Hei remembers that one of the first GCP projects in 2004 brought together researchers in various countries to characterise the genetic diversity of various crops, including rice.
“But everyone was using different genotyping platforms and markers, and the technology back then was not what we have now,” he recalls.
“So we spent a lot of resources getting poor quality data. In a sense, it was a failure. On the other hand, it was also a success because we alerted people to the importance of characterising diversity in every single crop. The whole concept of getting all the national partners doing genetic resource characterisation is a good one.
“We have evolved the technology together over the last 10 years of GCP. Now the country partners feel enabled. They are not scared of the technology.”
Abdelbagi agrees that characterising genetic diversity is essential, and adds that making such genetic stocks readily available to breeders is also vital.
“This has not been an issue before,” he explains. “With the new regulations of germplasm control and intellectual property issues, it became extremely difficult to exchange germplasm with some countries. One important lesson we learnt was to engage in direct discussion with our partners in efforts to influence their policies and guidelines to allow essential exchange of genetic stocks and breeding material, at least at the regional level.”
Abdelbagi adds that another big challenge has been to provide country partners with materials and DNA markers for marker-assisted selection programmes and to make sure these were properly used in breeding programmes.
“We solved this by hosting a workshop at IRRI and with continued visits with GCP collaborators,” he says.
Rice terraces in Ifugao Province in The Philippines.
‘Super’ crops: something ‘magic’ happens
Hei says that the GCP project he’s most passionate about, and one that leaves a lasting legacy, is the development of multiparent advanced generation intercross (MAGIC) populations, which will potentially yield lines that are tolerant to environmental stresses, grow well in poor soils and produce better quality grain.
“MAGIC populations will leave behind a very good resource towards improving different crop species,” says Hei. “I’m sure that they will expand on their own.”
GCP funded the development of four kinds of rice populations, including indica MAGIC, which is the most advanced of the MAGIC populations developed so far. These populations contain multiple desirable traits, including: blast and bacterial blight-resistance, salinity and submergence tolerance and grain quality.
New generation of researchers working on a new rice revolution
Rice farmer in her field in Rwanda.
Robert Zeigler’s dream of a new rice Green Revolution with ‘super crops’ is coming true, thanks in part to GCP’s focus on combining cutting-edge molecular plant-breeding techniques with conventional plant breeding.
“With all this going for us, the second Green Revolution means we can meet the great challenges ahead with unprecedented efforts that will result in unparalleled impacts,” he says. “This will range from mining the rice genomes for needed traits to developing climate change-ready rice.”
IRRI researchers like Abdelbagi agree that new plant-breeding techniques, such as those fostered by GCP, are making ‘super’ crops more likely: “I’m committed to understand how plants can be manipulated to adapt to, and better tolerate, extreme environmental stresses, which seems more feasible today than it has ever been before.
“GCP-supported work has provided mechanisms for developing varieties with multiple stress tolerances, besides the improvements in yield and quality.”
And for Hei, GCP’s 10-year legacy is not just about the technology but also about the people.
“Over ten years you have three generations of PhD students,” he says. “Many people became a ‘new generation’ scientist through this programme. Many people have benefitted. GCP is one of a kind. I’m just in love with it.”
GCP-supported researchers aimed high: they wanted to contribute to food security in the developing world by using the latest advances in crop science and plant breeding.
And with the lives of half of the world’s population directly reliant on their own agriculture, there is a lot at stake. Land degradation, salinity, pollution and excessive fertiliser use are just some of the challenges.
Rice is one of the most critical crops worldwide
Amelia Henry, drought physiology group leader at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), explains why rice was such a critical crop for GCP research. She says rice is grown in a diverse set of environmental settings, often characterised by severe flooding, poor soils and disease.
Cycling through rice fields in Odisha, India.
In Asia, 40 percent of rice is produced in rainfed systems with little or no water control or protection from floods and droughts – meaning rice plants are usually faced with too much or too little water, and rarely get just enough. In addition, 60 percent (29 million hectares) of the rainfed lowland rice is produced on poor and problem soils, including those that are naturally low in phosphorus.
Phosphorus deficiency and aluminium toxicity are two of the most widespread environmental causes of poor crop productivity in acidic soils, where high acid levels upset the balance of available nutrients. And drought makes these problems even worse.
Phosphorus is essential for growing crops. Its commercial use in fertilisers is due to the need to replace the phosphorus that plants have extracted from the soil as they grow. Soils lacking phosphorus are an especially big problem in Africa, and the continent is a major user of phosphate fertilisers. However, inappropriate use of fertilisers can, ironically, acidify soil further, since excess nitrogen fertiliser decreases soil pH.
Meanwhile, high levels of aluminium in soil cause damage to roots and impair crop growth, reducing their uptake both of nutrients like phosphorus and of water – making plants more vulnerable to drought. Aluminium toxicity is a major limitation on crop production for more than 30 percent of farmland in Southeast Asia and South America and approximately 20 percent in East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and North America.
The challenge today is to tap into the genetic codes of key crops such as rice and wheat to feed a growing global population. Science plays a crucial role in identifying genes for traits that help plants tolerate more difficult environmental conditions, and producing crop varieties that contain these genes.
Plant biologists are already developing new rice lines that produce higher yields in the face of reduced water, increasingly scant fertiliser as costs rise, and unproductive soils. However, ‘super’ crops are needed that can combine these qualities and withstand climate changes such as increasing temperatures and reduced rainfall in a century when the world’s population is estimated to reach nearly 10 billion people by 2050.
Bringing the best scientific minds to improve rice varieties
Ambitious in concept, the GCP research focussed on bringing together experts to work on these critical problems of rice production for some of the world’s poorest farmers.
The programme was rolled out in two phases that sought to explore the genetic diversity of key crops and use the most important genes for valuable traits, such as Sigrid’s discovery made in a rice variety that is tolerant of phosphorus-poor soils. Each phase involved dedicated teams in partner countries.
GCP Principal Investigator Hei Leung, from IRRI, says GCP is unique, one of kind: “I love it.” He says GCP has enabled rice researchers and breeders to embrace cutting-edge science through partnerships focussed on improving crop yields in areas previously deemed unproductive.
Hei says GCP wanted to target research during its second phase on those crops that most poor people depend upon. “We wanted to have a programme that is what we call ‘pro-poor’, meaning the majority of the world’s people depends on those crops,” he says.
Rice is the ‘chosen one’ of GCP’s cereal crop research and development, with the biggest slice of GCP’s research activities dedicated to this, the most widely consumed staple food.
It is crucial to increase rice supplies by applying research and development such as that carried out by GCP researchers over the past 10 years, Hei says.
Relying on rice’s small genome in the hunt for drought-tolerance genes
Researchers had been trying to map the genomes of key cereal crops for over two decades. Rice’s genome was mapped in 2004, just as GCP started.
Rice has a relatively small genome, one-sixth the size of the maize genome and 40 times smaller than the wheat genome. This makes it a useful ‘model’ crop for researchers to compare with other crops.
“People like to compare with rice because wheat and maize have very big genomes, and they don’t have the resources,” explains Hei.
After the rice genome had been sequenced, the next step was to focus down to a more detailed level: the individual genes that give rice plants traits such as drought tolerance. Identifying useful genes, and markers that act as genetic ‘tags’ to point them out, gives scientists an efficient way to choose which plants to use in breeding.
One of GCP’s Principal Investigators for rice was Marie-Noëlle Ndjiondjop, a senior molecular scientist with the Africa Rice Center.
“Rice is becoming a very important crop in Africa,” she says. “Production has been reduced by a lot of constraints, and drought is one of the most important constraints that we face in Africa.”
Meet Marie-Noëlle below (or on YouTube), in our series of Q&A videos on rice research in Africa.
Marie-Noëlle’s team recognised that drought tolerance was likely to be a complex trait in rice, involving many genes, due to the mix of physiological, genetic and environmental components that affect how well a plant can tolerate drought conditions. To help discover the rice varieties likely to have improved drought tolerance, Marie-Noëlle’s team used an innovative approach known as bi-parental marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS).
“With such a complex trait, you really need to have all the tools and infrastructure necessary; through GCP we were able to buy the necessary equipment and put in the infrastructure needed to find and test the drought trait in rice lines.
“By using the MARS approach we identified the genetic regions associated with drought and are moving towards developing new rice lines that the African breeder and farmer will be using in the next decade to grow crops that are better able to withstand drought conditions.”
Likewise, Amelia Henry’s IRRI team also developed drought-tolerant lines, particularly for drought-prone areas of South Asia. She says many of the promising deep-rooted or generally drought-tolerant varieties identified in the early decades after IRRI’s foundation in 1960 are still used today as ‘drought donors’.
“Since the strength of our project was the compilation of results from many different sites, this work couldn’t have been done without the GCP partners,” she says. “They taught me a lot about how rice grows in different countries and what problems rice farmers face.”
Hei agrees that GCP partnerships have been crucial, including in the successful breeding of rice with drought tolerance: “They’re getting a 1.5-tonne rice yield advantage under water stress. I mean, that’s unheard of! This is a crop that needs water.”
A rice farmer in Rwanda.
But the researchers could not rest with just one of rice’s problems solved.
Hei says GCP’s initial focus on drought was a good one but then, “I remember saying, ‘We cannot just go for drought. Rice, like all crops, needs packages of traits’.”
He knows that drought is just one problem facing rice farmers, noting “this broadened our research portfolio to include seeking to breed rice varieties with traits of tolerance to aluminium toxicity, salt and poor soils.”
The scope widens: phosphorus-hungry rice and a huge success
Sigrid Heuer was in The Philippines working for IRRI when she became involved in the ground-breaking phosphorus-uptake project for rice.
She took over the project being headed by Matthias Wissuwa. Much earlier, Matthias had noted that Kasalath – a traditional northern Indian rice variety that grew successfully in low-phosphorus soil – must contain advantageous genes. His postdoctoral supervisor, Noriharu Ae, thought that longer roots were likely to be the secret to some rice varieties being able to tolerate phosphorus-deficient soils.
Screening for phosphorus-efficient rice, able to make the best of low levels of available phosphorus, on an IRRI experimental plot in The Philippines. Some types of rice have visibly done much better than others.
Sigrid Heuer used her background in molecular breeding to take up the challenge with GCP to find the genes responsible for the Kasalath variety’s long roots.
“I spent years looking for the gene,” Sigrid says. “It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack; the genomic region where the gene is located is very complex.
“We had little biogenomics support at the time and I had three jobs and two kids; I was spending all my nights trying to find this gene.”
Sigrid Heuer in the field at IRRI.
But one day, Sigrid’s postdoctoral student Rico Gamuyao excitedly called her downstairs to the transgenic greenhouses. “Rico had used transgenic plants to see whether this gene had any effect. He was digging out plants from experimental pods.”
Sigrid says that moment in the Manila labs was the turning point for the project’s researchers.
Matthias’ team had previously identified a genomic region, or locus, named Pup1 (‘phosphorus uptake 1’) that was linked to phosphorus uptake in lines of traditional rice growing in poor soils. However, its functional mechanism remained elusive until the breakthrough GCP-funded project sequenced the locus, showing the presence of a Pup1-specific protein kinase gene, which was named PSTOL1 (‘phosphorus starvation tolerance 1’). The discovery was reported in the prestigious scientific journal Nature on 23 August 2012 and picked up by media around the world.
The gene instructs the plant to grow larger and longer roots, increasing its surface area – which Sigrid compares to having a bigger sponge to absorb more water and nutrients in the soil.
“Plants growing longer roots have more uptake of phosphorus – and PSTOL1 is responsible for this.
“GCP was always there, supporting us and giving us confidence, even when we weren’t sure we were going to succeed,” she recalls. “They really wanted us to succeed, so, financially and from a motivational point of view, this gave us more enthusiasm.”
She adds, jokingly, “With so many people having expectations about the project, it was better not to disappoint.”
For some insight straight from the source, listen to Matthias in our podcosts below. In these two bitesized chunks of wisdom he discusses the importance of phosphorus deficiency and of incorporating PSTOL1 into national breeding programmes; his work in Africa and the possibility of uncovering an African ‘Pup2’; what the PSTOL1 discovery has meant for him; and the essential contribution of international partnerships and GCP’s support.
Members of the IRRI PSTOL1, phosphorus uptake research team chat in the field in 2012. From left to right they are are: Sigrid Heuer, Cheryl Dalid, Rico Gamuyao, Matthias Wissuwa and Joong Hyoun Chin.
Phosphorus-uptake gene not all it seemed – an imposter?
But PSTOL1 was definitely not what it seemed. “It was identified under phosphorus-deficient conditions and the original screen was set up for that,” says Sigrid.
Researchers eventually discovered that Pup1 and the PSTOL1 gene within it were not really all about phosphorus at all: “It turns out it is actually a root-growth gene, which just happens to enhance uptake of phosphorus and other nutrients such as nitrogen and potassium.
“The result is big root growth and maintenance of that growth under stress. If you have improved root growth, there is more access to soil resources, as a plant can explore more soil area with more root fingers.”
Her team showed that overexpression of PSTOL1 gene significantly improves grain yield in varieties growing in phosphorus-deficient soil – by up to 60 percent compared to rice varieties that did not have the gene.
In field tests in Indonesia and The Philippines, rice with the PSTOL1 gene produced about 20 percent more grain than rice without the gene. This is important in countries where rice is grown in poor soils.
A farmer harvests rice in South Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Sigrid, now based in Adelaide at the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics, says the introduction of the new gene into locally adapted rice varieties in different locations across Asia and Africa is expected to boost productivity under low-phosphorus conditions.
“The ultimate measure for these kinds of projects is whether a gene works in different environments. I think we have a lot of evidence that says it does,” she says.
The discovery of PSTOL1 promises to improve the food security of rice farmers on phosphorus-deficient land though assisting them to grow more rice and earn more.
Titbits of further research successes: aluminium tolerance and MAGIC genes
Drought, low-phosphorus soils, aluminium toxicity, diseases, acid soils, climate change… the list seems never-ending for challenges to growing rice. Apart from the successes with drought and phosphorus that GCP scientists achieved, there was to be much more in the works from other GCP researchers.
In Phase II, they worked towards breeding aluminium-tolerant sorghum lines for sub-Saharan Africa, as well as applying what they learnt to discover similar genes in rice and maize.
Hei Leung says GCP leaves a lasting legacy in the development of multiparent advanced generation intercross (MAGIC) populations. These help breeders to identify valuable genes, and from among the populations they can also select lines to use in breeding that have favourable traits, such as being tolerant to environmental stresses, having an ability to grow well in poor soils or being able to produce better quality grain.
“MAGIC populations will leave behind a very good resource towards improving different crop species,” says Hei. “I’m sure that they will expand on their own.”
GCP funded the development of four different MAGIC populations for rice, including both indica and japonica types. And the idea of developing MAGIC populations has spread to other crops, including chickpeas, cowpeas and sorghum.
Meeting the challenges and delivering outcomes to farmers
But with success come the frustrations of getting there, according to Nourollah Ahmadi, GCP Product Delivery Coordinator for rice across Africa. “This is because things are not always going as well as you want.”
Project Delivery Coordinators monitor projects first-hand, conducting on-site visits, advising project leaders and partners and helping them implement delivery plans.
“One of the problems was the overall level of basic education of people who were involved in the project,” Nourollah says.
Rice cultivation in Mali is on the rise.
His work with GCP has opened up new prospects for some of the poorest farmers in the world: “For five years, I have been coordinating one of the rice initiatives implemented by the Africa Rice Center and involving three African countries.” These are Burkina Faso, Mali and Nigeria.
He says GCP has brought much-needed expertise and technical skills to countries which can now use genetic insights to produce improved crops tolerant of drought conditions and poor soils and resistant to diseases. Using new molecular-breeding techniques has provided a more effective way to move forward, still firmly focussed on helping the world’s poorest farmers achieve food security.
“We don’t change direction, we change tools – sometimes you have a bicycle, sometimes you have a car,” Nourollah says.
Hei agrees there have been challenges: “It’s been a bumpy road to get to this point. But the whole concept of getting all the national partners doing genetic resource characterisation is a very good one.
Right now they are enabled; they are not scared about the technology. They can apply it.”
Sigrid says applied research is judged on two scales: “One is the publications and science you’re doing. The other is whether the work has any impact in the field, whether it works in the field. Bringing these two together is sometimes a challenge.”
GCP has managed to meet both challenges. New crop varieties have been released to farmers, and more than 450 scientifically reviewed papers have been published since 2004.
Building on the rice success story and leaving a lasting legacy
The work that GCP-supported researchers have done for rice is also being used in other crops. For example, researchers used comparative genomics to determine if genes the same as or similar to those found in rice are present and operating in the same manner in sorghum and maize.
The GCP team found sorghum and maize varieties that contained genes, similar to rice’s PSTOL1, that also confer tolerance of phosphorus-deficient soil with an enhanced root system. They were then able to develop markers to help breeders in Brazil and Africa identify phosphorus-efficient lines.
The knowledge that GCP-supported rice researchers have generated is shared through communities of practice, through websites, publications, research meetings and the Integrated Breeding Platform.
As Amelia Henry notes, GCP’s achievements will be defined by “the spirit of dedication to openness with research data, results and germplasm and giving credit and support to partners in developing countries.” The work in rice in many ways exemplifies GCP’s collaborative approach, commitment to capacity building and deeply held belief that together we can go so much further in helping farmers.
Unlocking genetic diversity in crops for the resource-poor was at the heart of GCP’s mission, which in 2003 promised ‘a new, unique public platform for accessing and developing new genetic resources using new molecular technologies and traditional means’.
Certainly for poor rice farmers in Asia and Africa, the work that GCP has supported in applying the latest molecular-breeding techniques will lead to rice varieties that will help them produce better crops on poor soils in a changing climate.