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.

Cornell receives UK support to aid scientists fighting threats to global wheat supply

Ronnie Coffman (r), Cornell plant breeder and director of the new Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project, surveys rust resistant wheat in fields of the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research with Bedada Girma (l), wheat breeder and Ethiopian coordinator for new project. Ethiopia is a major partner in the new grant. CREDIT: McCandless/Cornell

ITHACA, NY: Cornell University will receive $10.5 million in UK aid investment from the British people to help an international consortium of plant breeders, pathologists and surveillance experts overcome diseases hindering global food security efforts.

The funds for the four-year Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat, or DGGW, project will build on a $24 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced in March 2016, and bring the total to $34.5 million.

“Wheat provides 20 percent of the calories and protein consumed by people globally, but borders in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East are porous when it comes to disease pathogens and environmental stressors like heat and drought that threaten the world’s wheat supply,” said Ronnie Coffman, international plant breeder and director of International Programs at Cornell University, who leads the global consortium.

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Harnessing medical technology and global partnerships to drive gains in food crop productivity

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Ulrich Schurr (left), of Germany’s Forschungszentrum Jülich research center and chair of the International Plant Phenotyping Network (IPPN), and Matthew Reynolds, wheat physiologist of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), are promoting global partnerships in phenotyping to improve critical food crops, through events like the recent International Crop Phenotyping Symposium. Photo: M.Listman/CIMMYT

EL BATÁN, Mexico (CIMMYT) — Global research networks must overcome nationalist and protectionist tendencies to provide technology advances the world urgently needs, said a leading German scientist at a recent gathering in Mexico of 200 agricultural experts from more than 20 countries.

“Agriculture’s critical challenges of providing food security and better nutrition in the face of climate change can only be met through global communities that share knowledge and outputs; looking inward will not lead to results,” said Ulrich Schurr, director of the Institute of Bio- and Geosciences of the Forschungszentrum Jülich research center, speaking at the 4th International Plant Phenotyping Symposium

One such community is the International Plant Phenotyping Network(IPPN), chaired by Schurr and co-host of the symposium in December, with the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, known by its Spanish acronym, CIMMYT.

Adapting medical sensors helps crop breeders see plants as never before

“Phenotyping” is the application of new technology — including satellite images, airborne cameras, and multi-spectral sensors mounted on robotic carts — to the age-old art of measuring the traits and performance of breeding lines of maize, wheat and other crops, Schurr said.

“Farmers domesticated major food crops over millennia by selecting and using seed of individual plants that possessed desirable traits, like larger and better quality grain,” he explained. “Science has helped modern crop breeders to ‘fast forward’ the process, but breeders still spend endless hours in the field visually inspecting experimental plants. Phenotyping technologies can expand their powers of observation and the number of lines they process each year.”

Adapting scanning devices and protocols pioneered for human medicine or engineering, phenotyping was initially confined to labs and other controlled settings, according to Schurr.

“The push for the field started about five years ago, with the availability of new high-throughput, non-invasive devices and the demand for field data to elucidate the genetics of complex traits like yield or drought and heat tolerance,” he added.

Less than 10 years ago, Schurr could count on the fingers of one hand the number of institutions working on phenotyping. “Now, IPPN has 25 formal members and works globally with 50 institutions and initiatives.”

Cameras and other sensors mounted on flying devices like this blimp [remote-control quadcopter] provide crop researchers with important visual and numerical information about crop growth, plant architecture and photosynthetic traits, among other characteristics. Photo: Emma Quilligan/CIMMYT

Many ways to see plants and how they grow

So-called “deep” phenotyping uses technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission and computer tomography to identify, measure and understand “invisible” plant parts, systems and processes, including roots and water capture and apportionment.

In controlled environments such as labs and greenhouses, researchers use automated systems and environmental simulation to select sources of valuable traits and to gain insight on underlying plant physiology that is typically masked by the variation found in fields, according to Schurr.

“Several specialists in our symposium described automated lab setups to view and analyze roots and greenhouse systems to assess crop shoot geometry, biomass accumulation and photosynthesis,” he explained. “These are then linked to crop simulation models and DNA markers for genes of important traits.”

Schurr said that support for breeding and precision agriculture includes the use of cameras or other sensors that take readings from above plant stands and crop rows in the field.

“These may take the form of handheld devices or be mounted on autonomous, robotic carts,” he said, adding that the plants can be observed using normal light and infrared or other types of radiation reflected from the plant and soil.

“The sensors can also be mounted on flying devices including drones, blimps, helicopters or airplanes. This allows rapid coverage of a larger area and many more plants than are possible through visual observation alone by breeders walking through a field.”

In the near future, mini-satellites equipped with high-resolution visible light sensors to capture and share aerial images of breeding plots will be deployed to gather data in the field, according to symposium participants.

Bringing high-flying technologies to earth

As is typical with new technologies and approaches to research, phenotyping for crop breeding and research holds great promise but must overcome several challenges, including converting images to numeric information, managing massive and diverse data, interfacing effectively with genomic analysis and bringing skeptical breeders on board.

“The demands of crop breeding are diverse — identifying novel traits, studies of genetic resources and getting useful diversity into usable lines, choosing the best parents for crosses and selecting outstanding varieties in the field, to name a few,” Schurr explained. “From the breeders’ side, there’s an opportunity to help develop novel methods and statistics needed to harness the potential of phenotyping technology.”

A crucial linkage being pursued is that with genomic analyses. “Studies often identify genome regions tied to important traits like photosynthesis as ‘absolute,’ without taking into account that different genes might come into play depending on, say, the time of day of measurement,” Schurr said. “Phenotyping can shed light on such genetic phenomena, describing the same thing from varied angles.”

Speaking at the symposium, Greg Rebetzke, a research geneticist since 1995 at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), said that the effective delivery in commercial breeding of “phenomics” — a term used by some to describe the high-throughput application of phenotyping in the field — is more a question of what and when, not how.

“It’s of particular interest in breeding for genetically complex traits like drought tolerance,” Rebetzke said. “Phenomics can allow breeders to screen many more plants in early generations of selection, helping to bring in more potentially useful genetic diversity. This genetic enrichment with key alleles early on can significantly increase the likelihood of identifying superior lines in the later, more expensive stages of selecting, which is typically done across many different environments.”

Moreover, where conventional breeding generally uses “snaphot” observations of plants at different growth stages, phenotyping technology can provide detailed time-series data for selected physiological traits and how they are responding to their surroundings — say, well-watered versus dry conditions — and for a much greater diversity and area of plots and fields.

Phenotyping is already being translated from academic research to commercial sector development and use, according to Christoph Bauer, leader of phenotyping technologies at KWS, a German company that breeds for and markets seed of assorted food crops.

“It takes six-to-eight years of pre-breeding and breeding to get our products to market,” Bauer said in his symposium presentation. “In that process, phenotyping can be critical to sort the ‘stars’ from the ‘superstars’.”

Commercial technology providers for phenotyping are also emerging, according to Schurr, helping to ensure robustness, the use of best practices and alignment with the needs of academic and agricultural industry customers.

“The partnership triad of academia, commercial providers and private seed companies offers a powerful avenue for things like joint analysis of genotypic variation in the pre-competitive domain or testing of cutting-edge technology,” he added.

On the final morning of the symposium, participants broke off into groups to discuss special topics, including the cost effectiveness of high-throughput phenotyping and its use to analyze crop genetic resources, measuring roots, diagnostics of reproductive growth, sensor technology needs, integrating phenotypic data into crop models, and public-private collaboration.

Schurr said organizations like CIMMYT play a crucial role.

“CIMMYT does relevant breeding for millions of maize and wheat farmers — many of them smallholders — who live in areas often of little interest for large-scale companies, providing support to the national research programs and local or regional seed producers that serve such farmers,” Schurr said. “The center also operates phenotyping platforms worldwide for traits like heat tolerance and disease resistance and freely spreads knowledge and technology.”

Wheat global impacts 1994-2014: Published report available

Just published by CIMMYT and WHEAT, the report “Impacts of International Wheat Improvement Research 1994-2014,” shows that varieties on nearly half the world’s wheat lands overall — as well as 70 to 80 percent of all wheat varieties released in our primary target regions (South Asia, Central and West Asia and North Africa)Cover_Page_01 — are CGIAR related. Other key findings include the following:

  • Fully 63 percent of the varieties featured CGIAR genetic contributions. This means they are either direct releases of breeding lines from CIMMYT and ICARDA or have a CGIAR line as a parent or more distant ancestor.
  • Yearly economic benefits of CGIAR wheat breeding research ranged from $2.2 to $3.1 billion (in 2010 dollars), and resulted from annual funding of just $30 million, representing a benefit-cost ratio of between 73:1 and 103:1, even by conservative estimates.
  • In South Asia, for example, which is home to more than 300 million undernourished people and whose inhabitants consume over 100 million tons of wheat a year, 92 percent of the varieties carried CGIAR ancestry.

Released to coincide with CIMMYT’s 50th anniversary this year, the new study analyzes the pedigrees of 4,604 wheat varieties released worldwide during 1994-2014, based on survey responses from public and private breeding programs in 66 countries.

Started in the 1950s by Norman Borlaug, the global wheat improvement pipeline coordinated by CIMMYT and ICARDA has constituted national breeding programs’ main source of new genetic variation for wheat yield increases, adaptation to climate change, and resistance to crop pests and diseases. In 2014 alone, CIMMYT distributed free of charge more than 12 tons of seed of experimental lines for testing and other research by 346 partners in public and private breeding programs of 79 countries.

CIMMYT and ICARDA depend on generous donor assistance and national partnerships to achieve meaningful farm-level impacts. On behalf of the farmers and consumers who have benefited through more productive and profitable agriculture and enhanced food security from the use of CGIAR wheat lines, we would like to recognize and thank these donors and partners and ask for their continued support.

Deadly disease wheat blast reaches South Asia

Blast wheat Duveiller Brazil 2009 (2)

Diseased wheat spikes carry shriveled or no grain at all.

One of the most fearsome and intractable wheat diseases in recent decades is wheat blast, caused by the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae.

First sighted in Brazil in 1985, blast is widespread in South American wheat fields, affecting as much as 3 million hectares in the early 1990s and seriously limiting the potential for wheat cropping on the region’s vast savannas.

The pathogen can be spread by seed and also survives on crop residues. Currently, most varieties being planted are susceptible and fungicides have not been effective in controlling the disease.

Experts had feared the possible spread of blast from Latin America to regions of Africa and Asia where conditions are similar. A severe outbreak of blast in key wheat districts of southwestern Bangladesh in early 2016 has confirmed the truth of these predictions. The consequences of a wider outbreak in South Asia could be devastating to a region of 300 million undernourished people, whose inhabitants consume over 100 million tons of wheat each year.

For more detail regarding wheat blast disease, suggested control measures, and links to selected scientific literature, click here.

Wheat rust researcher named AAAS fellow

In a ceremony on 13 February 2016, scientist Ravi Singh will be named become a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for “distinguished contributions to the field of agricultural research and development, particularly in wheat genetics, pathology and breeding.” Singh leads wheat improvement and rust disease resistance research at CIMMYT.

Additionally, two RaviPortrait-FlipCIMMYT scientists will speak at an AAAS session on 14 February titled “Pathogens Without Borders.” The session will highlight the work of David Hodson and Jessica Rutkoski who, like Singh, are researchers in the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project – part of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative at Cornell University.

To read the complete story on the Thompson-Reuters Foundation News page that describes the event and global efforts to stop wheat rust disease, click here.

Clone of magic wheat disease-resistance gene sheds light on new defense mechanism

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A resistant wheat line surrounded by susceptible lines infected by rust disease (photo: CIMMYT/Julio Huerta).

Mike Listman

Scientists have sequenced and described a gene that can help wheat to resist four serious fungal diseases, potentially saving billions of dollars in yearly grain losses and reducing the need for farmers to use costly fungicides, once the gene is bred into high-yielding varieties.

A global research team isolated the wheat gene Lr67, revealing how it hampers fungal pathogen growth through a novel mechanism.

The study, which was published in Nature Genetics on 9 November, involved scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), Mexico’s National Institute of Forestry, Agriculture, and Livestock Research (INIFAP), the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and scientists from Australia, including the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the University of Newcastle, and the University of Sydney.

According to Ravi Singh, CIMMYT distinguished scientist, wheat breeder, and co-author of the new study, Lr67 belongs to a group of three currently-known “magic” genes that help wheat to resist all three wheat rusts and powdery mildew, a disease that attacks wheat in humid temperate regions. The genes act in different ways but all slow — rather than totally stopping — disease development. When combined with other such partial resistance genes through breeding, they provide a strong, longer-lasting protection for plants, boosting food security.

To read more about Lr67‘s cloning and resistance type, click here.