International partnership seeking to increase wheat yields finds research hub in “Mecca of wheat”

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Photo by Mike Listman/CIMMYT

By Katie Lutz

An agreement formalizing an international partnership to increase wheat yields by 50 percent by 2034 was signed 1 January 2016. The agreement states that after years of planning and collaboration, the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP) research will be hosted at The Norman E. Borlaug Experimental Station (CENEB) in Obregon, Mexico for an indefinite period of time.

Originally announced at The Borlaug Summit in March 2014, IWYP will address issues concerning the widespread demand for wheat.

The partnership was agreed upon by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Grains Research Development Corporation (GRDC), Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA), Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA), United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and United States Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) to officially declare a global commitment to increase wheat yields in early January 2016.

With the world’s population estimated to reach 9.5 billion by 2050, the World Bank estimates that global wheat production must increase by 60 percent to meet this rising demand. Farmers will be forced to increase wheat production with limited resources, such as lack of access to water, nutrient-rich land and the omnipresent threat of climate change.Under the Wheat Initiative, IWYP will function as a hub for new discoveries and research, and their introduction into farmer’s wheat fields in developed and developing nations across the globe.

IWYP represents a long-term commitment to food security of public and private research organizations across the globe. In the first five years, partners aim to invest up to $100 million to research projects focused on raising the yield potential of wheat.

This year, sub-grants from IWYP partners have already been awarded to a number of highly prestigious academic institutions and research organizations worldwide, including researchers at CIMMYT, University of Buenos Aires, University of California, Davis, John Innes Centre UK, Australian Genomics Centre and several others.

“We have been trying to get yield potential back on the research agenda for nearly 20 years. Now, with wheat being of global importance to food security, finally with IWYP we can put actions to words,” said CIMMYT wheat physiologist,” Matthew Reynolds.

For more information on The International Wheat Yield Partnership visit the website at iwyp.org.

Global science team rescues rare wheat seed from the Fertile Crescent

By Katie Lutz

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With Syria torn apart by civil war, a team of scientists in Mexico and Morocco are rushing to save a vital sample of wheat’s ancient and massive genetic diversity, sealed in seed collections of an international research center formerly based in Aleppo, but forced to leave during 2012-13.

The researchers are restoring and genetically characterizing more than 30,000 unique seed collections of wheat from the Syrian genebank of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), which has relocated its headquarters to Beirut, Lebanon, and backed up its 150,000 collections of barley, fava bean, lentil, and wheat seed with partners and in the Global Seed Vault at Svalbard, Norway.

In March 2015, scientists at ICARDA were awarded The Gregor Mendel Foundation Innovation Prize for their courage in securing and preserving their seed collections at Svalbard, by continuing work and keeping the genebank operational in Syria even amidst war.

“With war raging in Syria, this project is incredibly important,” said Carolina Sansaloni, genotyping and DNA sequencing specialist at the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), which is leading work to analyze the samples and locate genes for breeding high-yield, climate resilient wheats. “It would be amazing if we could be just a small part of reintroducing varieties that have been lost in war-torn regions.”

Treasure from wheat’s cradle to feed the future

Much of wheat seed comes from the Fertile Crescent, a region whose early nations developed and depended on wheat as the vital grain of their civilizations. The collections could hold the key for future breeding to feed an expanding world population, according to Sansaloni.

“An ancient variety bred over time could contain a gene for resistance to a deadly wheat disease or for tolerance to climate change effects like heat and drought, which are expected to become more severe in developing countries where smallholder farmers and their families depend on wheat,” she explained.

Cross-region partners, global benefits

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Carolina Sansaloni, genotyping and DNA sequencing specialist at CIMMYT

Sansaloni’s team has been sequencing DNA from as many as 2,000 seed samples a week, as well as deriving molecular markers for breeder- and farmer-valued traits, such as disease resistance, drought or heat tolerance and

qualities that contribute to higher yields and grain quality.

They are using a high-end DNA sequencing system located at the Genetic Analysis Service for Agriculture (SAGA), a partnership between CIMMYT and Mexico’s Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA), and with the support of a private company from Australia, Diversity Arrays Technology (DArT).

The sequencer at SAGA can read 1600 samples of seed at once and develops more data than ever before. The HiSeq 2500 boils down data and shows the information at a “sequence level”, for example, height variations among wheat varieties.

Worldwide, there are few other machines that produce this kind of data and most are owned by private companies, explained Sansaloni. This was the first non-Latin American based project used by the HiSeq 2500 at CIMMYT.

“The success of this project shows what a fantastic opportunity for international collaboration we now have,” Sansaloni said. “I can’t even put a value on the importance of the data we have collected from this project. It’s priceless.”

After data has been collected, seed samples will be “regenerated” by ICARDA and CIMMYT. That is, the process of restoring old seed samples with healthy new seeds.

ICARDA and CIMMYT will share seed and data from the project and make these results available worldwide.

“With these new seeds, we hope to reconstruct ICARDA’s active and base collection of seeds over the next five years in new genebank facilities in Lebanon and Morocco,” said Fawzy Nawar, senior genebank documentation specialist, ICARDA.

Funded through the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, the effort benefits both of the international centers, as well as wheat breeding programs worldwide, said Tom Payne, head of CIMMYT’s Wheat Germplasm Bank. “ICARDA is in a difficult situation, with a lack of easy access to their seeds and no facilities to perform genotyping,” he explained. “This was the perfect opportunity to collaborate.”

Photos by: Carolina Sansaloni/CIMMYT

WHEAT Phase II Full Proposal: Your Partner Feedback

Between 17th to 29th February 2016, the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) is asking its research and development partners across the globe to provide feedback to the draft WHEAT Full Proposal for 2017-22. The Full Proposal is a research and funding plan that goes to the CGIAR Consortium and Fund Council on 31st March 2016. It includes feedback from previous partner consultations, notably the Global Partners Meeting (Istanbul, Dec 2014) and the Partner Priorities Survey (2013-14). WHEAT is very keen to get partners’ views on science content (the sections on Flagship Projects) and how WHEAT will partner in future (e.g. Partnership Strategy, sections 1.8 and 3.2).

Please access the WHEAT Phase II Full Proposal and partner feedback form here:

https://cimmyt.formstack.com/forms/wheat_phase_ii_full_proposal_partner_feedback

We are very grateful for your time and thoughts.

Sincerely,
Hans Braun, CRP Director

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.

Early-sown wheat beats South Asia heat

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Farmer Nathuni Singh doubled his wheat harvest by sowing early (photo: CSISA).

In response to earlier summers and rising temperatures in South Asia, specialists in the CIMMYT-led Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA) have been encouraging farmers in India’s eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to sow their wheat crop by mid-November, instead of the traditional date of late December.

According to R.K. Malik, a CSISA senior agronomist, farmers who sow their wheat at the traditional time can lose as much of a quarter of the crop in the spring heat wave, which can exceed 40 degrees Celsius and now arrives as early as March, instead of May, as was previously the case.

Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the work is covered in the lead story of the January/February 2016 edition of the USAID periodical FRONTLINES.

Click here to read the FRONTLINES story about farmers like Nathuni Singh and how they have benefited from adopting the new practice, despite the risks involved and the contrary opinions of family and local peers.

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.

NAAS fellow M.L. Jat talks about climate change, sustainable agriculture

Katelyn Roett

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M.L. Jat observing wheat germination in a zero-till field in Haryana, India (credit: DK Bishnoi/CIMMYT).

CIMMYT senior scientist M.L. Jat has received India’s National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) fellowship in Natural Resource Management for his “outstanding contributions in developing and scaling” conservation agriculture-based management technologies for predominant cereal-based cropping systems in South Asia.

Jat’s research on conservation agriculture (CA) – sustainable and profitable agriculture that improves livelihoods of farmers via minimal soil disturbance, permanent soil cover, and crop rotations – has guided improvements in soil and environmental health throughout South Asia. His work has led to policy-level impacts in implementing CA practices such as precision land leveling, zero tillage, direct seeding, and crop residue management, and he has played a key role in building the capacity of CA stakeholders throughout the region.

Sustainable innovation, including climate-smart agriculture, were a major theme at the COP21 climate talks .

What are the major threats global climate change poses to South Asian agriculture?
Jat: South Asia is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate change. With a growing population of 1.6 billion people, the region hosts 40% of the world’s poor and malnourished on just 2.4% of the world’s land. Agriculture makes up over half of the region’s livelihoods, so warmer winters and extreme, erratic weather events such as droughts and floods have an even greater impact. Higher global temperatures will continue to add extreme pressure to finite land and other natural resources, threatening food security and livelihoods of smallholder farmers and the urban poor.

How does CA mitigate and help farmers adapt to climate change?
Jat:
In South Asia, climate change is likely to reduce agricultural production 10‐50% by 2050 and beyond, so adaptation measures are needed now. Climate change has complex and local impacts, requiring scalable solutions to likewise be locally-adapted. Climate-smart agriculture practices such as CA not only minimize production costs and inputs, but also help farmers adapt to extreme weather events, reduce temporal variability in productivity, and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, according to ample data on CA management practices throughout the region.

What future developments are needed to help South Asian farmers adapt to climate change?
Jat: Targeting and access to CA sustainable intensification technologies, knowledge, and training—such as precision water and nutrient management or mechanized CA solutions specific to a farmer’s unique landscape—will be critical to cope with emerging risks of climate variability. Participatory and community-based approaches will be critical for scaled impact as well. For example, the climate smart village concept allows rural youth and women to be empowered not only by becoming CA practitioners but also by serving as knowledge providers to the local community, making them important actors in generating employment and scaling CA and other climate-smart practices. Where do you see your research heading in the next 10-15 years? Now that there are clear benefits of CA and CSA across a diversity of farms at a regional level, as well as increased awareness by stakeholders of potential challenges of resource degradation and food security in the face of climate change, scaling up CA and CSA interventions will be a priority. For example, the Government of Haryana in India has already initiated a program to introduce CSA in 500 climate smart villages. Thanks to this initiative, CA and CSA will benefit 10 million farms across the region in the next 10-15 years.


Climate-Smart Villages are a community-based approach to adaptation and mitigation of climate change for villages in high-risk areas, which will likely suffer most from a changing climate. Created by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), the project began in 2011 with 15 climate-smart villages in West Africa, East Africa and South Asia, and is expanding to Latin America and Southeast Asia. CIMMYT is leading the CCAFS-CSV project in South Asia.


 

Call for Applications for Basic Wheat Improvement Course

IMG_0901Applications for the Basic Wheat Improvement Course (BWIC) are due 15 December.

The BWIC is a three-month intensive program at the Campo Experimental Norman E. Borlaug (CENEB) in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, that targets young and mid-career scientists, focusing on applied breeding techniques in the field.

The training program has benefited national research programs since its inception. The increasing number of wheat scientists in major wheat producing countries reflects the great need and interest of national programs in training young scientists. One of the most frequent requests from countries and national programs is for more trained scientists.

Since 1968, over 1000 scientists from 106 countries have participated in training courses in Mexico. The training program has helped form positive bonds between CIMMYT and the trainees’ countries of origin. Course alumni have gone on to lead national programs, receive advanced degrees and contribute nationally and internationally to wheat improvement.

The course will run from February 20- May 25, 2016 and will focus on practical aspects of breeding, pathology, physiology and wheat quality. Trainees will participate in lectures, workshops, seminars and field work covered by CIMMYT scientists and guest lecturers.

Testimony from a 2015 Trainee:

“This program was important for me to start my professional career. It was vital for me to learn from an international program, so that I could adapt this new information for our national program. Coming to CIMMYT was a dream; it’s one of the most famous international centers with an incredible staff that we all learned so much from.

I would recommend this course for the young and old to come and learn the basic methodology for selection and to share with other people their experiences and culture.” – Rifka Hammami, Tunisia

Read more about The 2016 BWIC and  apply for the course here.

 

Fast-tracking wheat seed deployment in remote Pakistan regions

Mike Listman

Nearly 10,000 smallholder farmers in marginal, far-flung areas of Pakistan are harvesting more, eating better, and earning cash from their wheat crops, as a result of a partnership that is working to offer widespread access to improved wheat seed and farming practices.

“The extra grain from the new varieties will be enough for my family for three additional months,” said farmer Khan Said of Swat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, as he surveyed his tawny, sun-kissed wheat field. He also hoped the extra straw from his crop would earn him about US $140.

In autumn-2014, participating farmers in 63 moderately-to-highly-food-insecure districts received a 25-kilogram bag of seed of the new varieties—enough to sow a quarter hectare and compare their performance with that of traditional varieties, as well as helping to grow more seed for redistribution. The new varieties are high-yielding and resist wheat rust, a fungal disease whose three forms—stem, leaf, and yellow rust—are found on as much as half of Pakistan’s wheat area and which constitute a rising threat to the crop.

“Our results show a yield advantage of more than 100% in harsh environments for the new varieties and, after just one season, farmers are attesting to significant improvements in their food security and livelihoods,” said Krishna Dev Joshi, CIMMYT wheat improvement specialist who is coordinating the contributions of 27 partners with this aim. “This proves how, with better access to seed of new varieties and technical support, Pakistani farmers can benefit from the latest wheat science and replace older, rust-susceptible varieties.”

According to Joshi, if half of the harvest from the new varieties were saved as seed, this could be sown on at least 30,000 hectares, producing enough additional seed to cover 1 million hectares in the third year with no extra costs, through farmer-to-farmer seed flow networks, and ultimately creating visible impacts in the project area. The follow-up surveys indicated an overwhelming acceptance of new wheat varieties, as over 87% of participating farmers saved their seeds to expand area under the varieties.

“Targeting smallholders, vulnerable people, and women-headed households has been seen as a good strategy to ensure food security and improve livelihoods,” said Joshi. “We’re moving forward on our vision to integrate the best wheat varieties with appropriate agronomic practices.”

Initiatives are now focusing on building capacity in various public and private sector partners for sustainable impact. Encouraged by the results, the National Rural Support Program (NRSP), a not-for-profit development organization established in 1991 that fosters a countrywide network of more than 200,000 grassroots organizations across 56 districts, has committed to make the activities described part of their regular program. Recently, the NRSP Board of Directors also approved setting up a subsidiary seed company to commercialize best wheat and other crop seed varieties through their networks. Joshi said that nearly 2,000 tons of seed, including basic seed of new wheat varieties, will be produced in the far-flung areas of Pakistan, and new partnerships have been developed for Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan, where agriculture research and extension needs extra support, to fast-track the spread of best practices from this work.

The activities and outputs are part of the Agricultural Innovation Project (AIP) for Pakistan, led by CIMMYT and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

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.