International experts train scientists to fight deadly wheat disease in South Asia

A workshop participant speaks with a Bangladesh farmer. The protective gear minimizes the chances of transferring infectious spores. Photo by Chris Knight, IP-CALS, Cornell.

Samantha Hautea
Thursday, February 23, 2017

DINAJPUR, BANGLADESH: Wheat blast, a devastating fungal disease that appeared in South Asia for the first time in 2016, was the focus of a surveillance workshop in Bangladesh where international experts trained 40 top wheat pathologists, breeders, and agronomists from Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

The two-week program, “Taking action to mitigate the threat of wheat blast in South Asia: Disease surveillance and monitoring skills training,” was held at the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) Wheat Research Center (WRC) in Dinajpur, Bangladesh, February 4-16, 2017.

Wheat researchers from BARI, Cornell University, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Kansas State University (KSU), and the Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU) led the workshop, training participants to recognize, monitor, and control wheat blast.

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Agricultural researchers forge new ties to develop nutritious crops and environmental farming

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Photo: A. Cortes/CIMMYT

EL BATAN, Mexico (CIMMYT)—Scientists from two of the world’s leading agricultural research institutes will embark on joint research to boost global food security, mitigate environmental damage from farming, and help to reduce food grain imports by developing countries.

At a recent meeting, 30 scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and Rothamsted Research, a UK-based independent science institute, agreed to pool expertise in research to develop higher-yielding, more disease resistant and nutritious wheat varieties for use in more productive, climate-resilient farming systems.

“There is no doubt that our partnership can help make agriculture in the UK greener and more competitive, while improving food security and reducing import dependency for basic grains in emerging and developing nations,” said Achim Dobermann, director of Rothamsted Research, which was founded in 1843 and is the world’s longest running agricultural research station.

Individual Rothamsted and CIMMYT scientists have often worked together over the years, but are now forging a stronger, broader collaboration, according to Martin Kropff, CIMMYT director general. “We’ll combine the expertise of Rothamsted in such areas as advanced genetics and complex cropping systems with the applied reach of CIMMYT and its partners in developing countries,” said Kropff.

Nearly half of the world’s wheat lands are sown to varieties that carry contributions from CIMMYT’s breeding research and yearly economic benefits from the additional grain produced are as high as $3.1 billion.

Experts predict that by 2050 staple grain farmers will need to grow at least 60 percent more than they do now, to feed a world population exceeding 9 billion while addressing environmental degradation and climate shocks.

Rothamsted and CIMMYT will now develop focused proposals for work that can be funded by the UK and other donors, according to Hans Braun, director of CIMMYT’s global wheat program. “We’ll seek large initiatives that bring significant impact,” said Braun.

Advances toward breaking the wheat yield barrier: IWYP 2015-16 annual report

In addition to incisive background on IWYP, including its model, mission and goals, this report covers first-year activities and advances from thcover-iwyp-ar-2015-16e partnership’s Science Program and how research outputs are uses to generate added value.

Dr. Richard Flavell FRS, CBE, who chairs the Science Impact and Executive Board of IWYP, states: “Being a part of such a worthy endeavor as IWYP that seeks to impact global food and nutritional security by seeking solutions with cutting-edge science is exhilarating. This is a unique opportunity to employ and validate a new way of working together internationally to achieve common goals that address critical needs. We are confident that we have laid the necessary groundwork and will remain focused and committed to realize our collective success.”

To view or download a copy of the IWYP Annual Report follow the link: http://iwyp.org/annual-report/

Scientists harness genetics to develop more “solar”- and structurally-productive wheat

By Mike Listman

In early outcomes, partners in the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP) are finding evidence that increased photosynthesis, through high biomass, improvements in photosynthetic efficiency, and improved plant architecture, can help make wheat more productive, as the Partnership progresses toward meeting its aim of raising the crop’s genetic yield potential by up to 50% over the next 20 years.

This and other work, and particularly partners’ roles and operating arrangements, were considered at the first official annual IWYP Program Conference. This was held at the Norman E. Borlaug Experiment Station near Ciudad Obregón, Mexico, 8-10 March 2016, following the funding and commencement of the Partnership’s first eight projects, according to Jeff Gwyn, IWYP Program Director.

“The aim of the conference was for participants to learn about everyone else’s work and to integrate efforts to realize synergies and added value,” said Gwyn, noting that some 35 specialists from nearly 20 public and private organizations of the Americas, Europe, Oceania, and South Asia took part.

“Upgrading wheat productivity is a bit like building a race car,” Gwyn explained. “One person is working on the tires and suspension, another team is putting together the motor, and someone else is designing and assembling the interiors. Instead of working in isolation, how about if everyone coordinates to make sure the pieces fit and function together at high performance when the car is finished?”

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Jeff Gwyn (right), IWYP Program Director, was excited by conference participants’ enthusiasm and commitment. “Everyone embraced this unique opportunity to link and do things together from the start,” said Gwyn, pictured here with Richard Trethowan, University of Sydney wheat researcher and former CIMMYT breeder. “They really took control and started bringing the IWYP vision to fruition, with minimal encouragement.” (Photo: MListman/CIMMYT)

Wheat’s time has come
IWYP was launched in 2014 by UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Mexico’s Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Its launch was in response to the urgent need to boost world wheat output by between 30 and 60 percent to meet expanding global demand for wheat-based foods by mid-century — particularly in developing countries, whose populations are rapidly rising and urbanizing.

Involving research teams from Argentina, Australia, India, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom, the first IWYP projects were chosen from research proposals submitted in 2015. They are on track to find and use traits and genes that enhance photosynthesis and increase its efficiency, boost spike development, optimize wheat’s canopy architecture, and increase wheat’s biomass and harvest index—that is, the ratio of grain to other plant parts.

According to Richard B. Flavell, Chair of the IWYP Science and Impact Executive Board, the time for advanced science to boost wheat’s genetic yield potential has arrived. “It’s timely for real,” Flavell said, crediting hundreds of biotech companies and bioinformatics entrepreneurs worldwide with laying critical groundwork. “The molecular genetics of plants, including wheat, started in the 1970s and people knew it would be applicable to plant breeding one day, but because breeding involves thousands of genes located over the whole genome, it’s taken this long to develop gene detection tools that can be used genome-wide and that are cheap enough to deploy at scale to aid breeding directly.”

Vital grain of civilization and food security

Gwyn said that IWYP has partnered with CIMMYT to lead the IWYP development platform (IWYP Hub), designed to deliver research findings and outputs to breeding programs worldwide as quickly as possible, and that public-private partnerships are a key feature of the IWYP Program.

“Private sector experts are advising and providing valuable strategic guidance and can carry out projects if they choose and also help with delivery,” Gwyn added. “Their participation is helping to keep IWYP relevant and they gain early insights on results.”

Wheat provides approximately 20 percent of humanity’s protein and calories. The rate of yearly genetic gain for yield has slowed in recent decades to less than 1 percent, according to Hans Braun, director of CIMMYT’s global wheat program. “To avoid grain shortages and price hikes that most sorely hurt poor consumers, who spend a large portion of their income just to eat each day, we need to achieve an annual yield growth rate of at least 1.7 percent,” said Braun.

IWYP research outputs are building on and will amplify physiological breeding approaches, according to Matthew Reynolds, CIMMYT wheat physiologist. “We’ve implemented these approaches recently in our wheat breeding programs and results from international trials already show a boost in genetic yield gains,” he said.

A long-term, global collaboration, IWYP brings together funding from public and private research organizations of many countries. Currently, this includes Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), BBSRC, CIMMYT, the Department of Biotechnology of India (DBT), the Grains Research and Development Corporation of Australia (GRDC), the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique of France (INRA), SAGARPA, the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and USAID. Over the first five years, the growing list of partners aims to invest up to US $100 million. Further details can be found at http://iwyp.org.

Mobilizing seed bank diversity for wheat improvement

During centrifugation, the emulsion for DNA extraction separates into two distinct phases. Chloroform:octanol is more dense than water solutions, so it forms the lower (green) layer. It is also more chemically attractive to molecules such as proteins and polysaccharides. These are thus separated out from the DNA, which is contained in the upper aqueous phase. This clear solution is carefully transferred to fresh centrifuge tubes using a pipette. Photo credit: CIMMYT. See the "DNA extraction" set that this photo is part of for more information and images.A recent study by a global team of researchers from CIMMYT, ICARDA, and the Global Crop Diversity Trust has uncovered a treasure trove of wheat genetic diversity to address drought and rising temperatures—constraints that cut harvests for millions of farmers worldwide and which are growing more severe with each passing year.

The team studied the molecular diversity of 1,423 spring bread wheat accessions that represent major global production environments, using high quality genotyping-by-sequencing (GBS) loci and gene-based markers for various adaptive and quality traits.

They discovered thousands of new DNA marker variations in landraces known to be adapted to drought (1,273 novel GBS SNPs) and heat (4,473 novel GBS SNPs), opening the potential to enrich elite breeding lines with novel alleles for drought and heat tolerance. New allelic variation for vernalization and glutenin genes was also identified in 47 landraces from Afghanistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Mean diversity index (DI) estimates revealed that synthetic hexaploids—created by crossing wheat’s wild grass ancestor Aegilops tauschii with durum wheat—are genetically more diverse than elite lines (DI = 0.267) or landraces (DI = 0.245). Lines derived from such crosses are already playing an increasingly important role in global and national breeding programs.

Identifying and mobilizing useful genetic variation from germplasm banks to breeding programs is key to sustaining crop genetic improvement.  The results have already been used to select 200 diverse germplasm bank accessions for pre-breeding and allele mining of candidate genes associated with drought and heat stress tolerance, thus channeling novel variation into breeding pipelines.

Published in the paper Exploring and Mobilizing the Gene Bank Biodiversity for Wheat Improvement, the research is part of CIMMYT’s ongoing Seeds of Discovery project visioning towards the development of high yielding wheat varieties that address future challenges from climate change.