New Publications: Identifying common genetic bases for yield, biomass and radiation use efficiency in spring wheat

This article was originally published on the website of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center on March 7, 2019.

For plant scientists, increasing wheat yield potential is one of the most prevalent challenges of their work. One key strategy for increasing yield is to improve the plant’s ability to produce biomass through optimizing the conversion of solar radiation into plant structures and grain, called radiation use efficiency (RUE). Currently, the process is 30-50% less efficient in wheat than in maize.

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) wheat physiologist Gemma Molero, in collaboration with Ryan Joynson and Anthony Hall of the Earlham Institute, has been studying the association of RUE related traits with molecular markers to identify specific genes associated with this trait.

In December 2018, her team published their results in the article “Elucidating the genetic basis of biomass accumulation and radiation use efficiency in spring wheat and its role in yield potential,” shedding light on some of the genetic bases of biomass accumulation and RUE in a specially designed panel of lines that included material with diverse expression of RUE over the wheat crop cycle.

Over the course of two years, Molero and fellow researchers evaluated a panel of 150 elite spring wheat genotypes for 31 traits, looking for marker traits associated with yield and other “sink”-related traits, such as, grain number, grain weight and harvest index, along with ‘’source’’-related traits, such as RUE and biomass at various growth stages. Many of the elite wheat lines that were tested encompass “exotic” material in their pedigree such as ancient wheat landraces and wheat wild relatives.

The scientists found that increases in both net rate of photosynthesis and RUE have the potential to make a large impact on wheat biomass, demonstrating that the use of exotic material is a valuable resource to help increase yield potential. This is the first time that a panel of elite wheat lines has been assembled using different sources of yield potential traits, and an important output from a large global endeavor to increase wheat yield, the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP).

“We identified common genetic bases for yield, biomass and RUE for the first time. This has important implications for wheat researchers, breeders, geneticists, plant scientists and biologists,” says Molero.

The identification of molecular markers associated with the studied traits is a valuable tool for wheat improvement. Broadly speaking, the study opens the door for a series of important biological questions about the role of RUE in yield potential and in the ability to increase grain biomass.

In order to accommodate worldwide population increases and shifts in diet, wheat yield needs to double by 2050 — and genetic gains in wheat, specifically, must increase at a rate of 2.4 percent annually. Increasing biomass through the optimization of RUE along the wheat crop cycle can be an important piece in the puzzle to help meet this demand.

Read the full study here.

International Women’s Day 2019 and the CGIAR system

In celebration of International Women’s Day 2019, Victor Kommerell, Program Manager of the CGIAR Research Programs on MAIZE and WHEAT at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, reflects about International Women’s Day and gender research at CGIAR in a conversation with CGIAR science leaders.

Victor encourages gender in agriculture specialists to “Get out of your comfort zone!”

See the full article, as well as with videos, interviews and publications from across the CGIAR system on gender research, here.

Victor Kommerell is Program Manager of the CGIAR Research Programs on MAIZE and WHEAT(photo credit: CIMMYT)

Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture (Awla) fellowship program opens call for applications

This press release was originally posted on the website of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA). The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat is a program sponsor.

  • Awla fellowship program aims to help women researchers in agriculture secure leadership roles by encouraging gender-responsive working cultures and creating platforms that showcase their intellect, capability and contribution.
  • Applications can be made through www.awlafellowships.org and close on 15th April 2019.
Photo Credit: International Center for Biosaline Agriculture

Dubai, UAE, March 7, 2019 – On the eve of International Women’s Day, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) and CGIAR Research Program on Wheat launched a call for applications for the first edition of the Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture (Awla) fellowship program for women researchers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

The Awla fellowship program aims to help women researchers in agriculture to secure leadership roles by encouraging gender-responsive working cultures and creating platforms to showcase their intellect, capability and contribution. Awla’s first cohort will help establish the first R&D forum in the MENA to address pressing regional agricultural challenges and take part in the region’s first networking platform for women researchers across agricultural disciplines.

The call for applications will lead to the selection of a group of 20 to 30 researchers from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine and Tunisia. The program will be delivered from two regional hubs – Jordan and Tunisia – over a 10-month period, starting from 1st June 2019.

Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, Director General of ICBA, said: “Women-led contributions to agriculture, both on the farm and in the lab, are essential components of global food security. And our program is designed to address structural causes of gender inequality and encourage women to take an active role in future scientific developments and innovation. Tapping women’s knowledge and potential today will set the world on course for a more sustainable and food-secure future.”

H.E. Dr. Bandar Hajjar, President of the IsDB, said: “We are delighted to be partnering in launching this new program, which is a solid step in making sure no one is left behind. At the IsDB, we are focused on putting in place the next steps to help achieve gender parity and the Awla fellowship program is a welcome addition to the number of high-profile projects we have launched and designed to promote women and women’s empowerment, along with our IsDB Prize for Women’s Contribution to Development”.

Mr. Hassan Damluji, Deputy Director – Global Policy & Advocacy and Head of Middle East Relations at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said: “This year’s call to action for International Women’s Day is to build a gender-balanced world – and that’s precisely what Awla aims to do for regional agricultural research and development. By providing female researchers with the resources needed to build their skills and networks and a platform to be heard, the program aims to address the gender gap in agricultural R&D and create a more balanced playing field for women and men. This will improve the quality and impact of agricultural research in MENA overall, resulting in more solutions to the region’s most pressing challenges.

“We’re delighted to partner with ICBA and the IsDB on a fellowship program that will produce a wave of skilled, empowered and well-connected female researchers. This first cohort will play a key role in the success and sustainability of the program, and we encourage all candidates from across the focus countries to apply.”  

Mr. Victor Kommerell, Program Manager for the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, remarked: “We are excited to work together with Awla. We have the same interest – building female science power in the MENA region. Naturally, WHEAT’s focus is on social or natural sciences research connected to wheat-based systems. Awla is the larger program and WHEAT can fit right in. Together, we can build critical mass in a few years’ time.”

Empirical evidence indicates that a disproportionately low number of women work in senior research and leadership positions in the region. The average share of women researchers across the region stands at 17% – the lowest in the world. This gap is most visible in the staffing of agricultural research and extension organizations, despite women making up more than 40% of the labor force in the sector. This means that policy and investment measures in agriculture might not be as effective as they could be because they do not fully reflect gender perspectives.

ICBA developed Awla in 2016 with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the IsDB. The program aims to contribute to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on gender equality and women’s empowerment by building and enhancing the capacities of a new generation of Arab women researchers and leaders. By doing so, Awla aspires to have a positive impact on the SDGs on Climate Action; Life on Land; and Partnerships for the Goals.

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About ICBA
The International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) is a unique applied agricultural research center in the world with a focus on marginal areas where an estimated 1.7 billion people live. It identifies, tests and introduces resource-efficient, climate-smart crops and technologies that are best suited to different regions affected by salinity, water scarcity and drought. Through its work, ICBA helps to improve food security and livelihoods for some of the poorest rural communities around the world.
www.biosaline.org

About the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy and productive lives. Through collaboration and partnership, the foundation helps fund research and programs to benefit those living in poverty all around the globe. The foundation works with partners in the Middle East to address the needs of the most vulnerable people through investments in disease eradication, emergency relief and agricultural research, as well as providing support to the philanthropic and development aid sectors.
https://www.gatesfoundation.org/

About IsDB
The Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) Group is one of the world’s largest multilateral development banks that has been working for over 40 years to improve the lives of the communities that it serves by delivering impact at scale.
The Bank brings together 57-member countries across four continents touching the lives of 1 in every 5 of the world’s population.
Rated AAA by the three major rating agencies of the world, the IsDB Mission is to equip people to drive their own economic and social progress at scale, putting the infrastructure in place to enable them to fulfil their potential.
The IsDB builds collaborative partnerships among communities and nations, and work towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by harnessing the power of science, technology and innovation and fostering ethical and sustainable solutions to the world’s greatest development challenges.
Over the years, the Islamic Development Bank has evolved from a single entity into a group (IsDB Group) comprising five entities: Islamic Development Bank (IsDB), the Islamic Research and Training Institute (IRTI), the Islamic Corporation for the Development of the Private Sector (ICD), the Islamic Corporation for the Insurance of Investment and Export Credit (ICIEC), and the International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (ITFC).
www.isdb.org

About CGIAR Research Program on Wheat
Joining advanced science with field-level research and extension in lower- and middle-income countries, the
Agri-Food Systems CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) works with public and private organizations worldwide to raise the productivity, production and affordable availability of wheat for 2.5 billion resource-poor producers and consumers who depend on the crop as a staple food. WHEAT is led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) as a primary research partner. Funding for WHEAT comes from CGIAR and national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies, in particular the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). www.wheat.org

Press enquiries:
ICBA
Mr. Showkat Nabi Rather, ICBA, Dubai, UAE: s.rather@biosaline.org.ae, or +971 55 137 8653

IsDB
Mr. Muhammad Jameel Yusha’U, IsDB, Jeddah, KSA: myushau@isdb.org, or +966126466421


Applications now open for journalist training at International Wheat Congress

Aerial photo of Saskatoon. Photo credit: IWC

The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) is sponsoring 10 journalists based in developing countries — with travel, registration and accommodation— to attend the International Wheat Congress, the premiere international gathering of scientists working on wheat research, taking place July 21-26, 2019 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

The 10 journalists will be selected based on the following criteria:

  • writing experience and skills
  • interest in the topic
  • established media credentials
  • recommendation by the editor of a publication for which they have written
  • plans to publish future articles on wheat research.

Selected journalists will travel to Saskatchewan to attend the conference proceedings and participate in exclusive training, mentoring and networking activities aimed at building working relationships between journalists and researchers in developing countries, and facilitating greater awareness and enhanced media coverage of wheat science, agricultural innovations and food security.

Journalists will have the opportunity to learn about cutting-edge scientific projects and achievements in wheat, and to network and learn from communicators, researchers and fellow journalists working on the topic of food security. 

Wheat provides 20 percent of the calories and protein people consume globally, and livelihoods for an estimated 80 million farmers in the developing world. Demand for wheat is growing rapidly — by 2050 it is predicted to increase by 70 percent – while crop production is challenged by pests, diseases and climate change-related heat and drought.  

Wheat scientists are working on cutting-edge solutions to build farmers’ resilience to these challenges, including developing disease-resistant, nutritious and climate-resilient wheat varieties, sharing sustainable farming practices and conserving biodiversity.

The media play an important role in raising awareness of the challenges facing farmers — and the importance of research that helps them. 

The International Wheat Congress will bring an expected 1000 attendees to participate in sessions with more than 100 speakers from the wheat research community, covering issues from wheat growing areas throughout the world. Topics will include wheat diversity and genetic resources; genomics; breeding, physiology and technologies; environmental sustainability and management of production systems; resistance to stresses; and nutrition, safety and health.

Applications should be submitted online through this online form by Friday, March 22, 2019 (deadline extended.)

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

For any questions or issues, contact wheatcrp@cgiar.org.

Joining advanced science with field-level research and extension in lower- and middle-income countries, the Agri-Food Systems CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) works with public and private organizations worldwide to raise the productivity, production and affordable availability of wheat for 2.5 billion resource-poor producers and consumers who depend on the crop as a staple food.  WHEAT is led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) as a primary research partner.  Funding for WHEAT comes from CGIAR and national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies, in particular the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR),  the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). www.wheat.org

Women’s equality crucial for Ethiopia’s agricultural productivity and wheat self-sufficiency goals

This op-ed by CIMMYT researchers Kristie Drucza and Mulunesh Tsegaye  was originally published in the Ethiopian newspaper The Reporter .

A farmer stacking harvested wheat Dodola district, Ethiopia. Photo: CIMMYT/P. Lowe

The Government of Ethiopia recently announced an ambitious goal to reach wheat self-sufficiency by 2022, eliminating expensive wheat imports and increasing food security.

However, a new report based on a four-year research project on gender and productivity in Ethiopia’s wheat sector indicates that a lack of technical gender research capacity, a shortage of gender researchers and low implementation of gender-focused policies is hampering these efforts.

Gender equality is crucial for agricultural productivity. Women head a quarter of rural households in Ethiopia. However, faced with low or no wages, limited access to credit and constrained access to land and other resources, they produce 23 percent less per hectare than men. Women in male-headed households have even more limitations, as gender norms often exclude them from community power structures, extension services and technical programs. According to the World Bank, a failure to recognize the roles, differences and inequities between men and women poses a serious threat to the effectiveness of Ethiopia’s agricultural development agenda.

The good news is the Government of Ethiopia has taken positive steps towards encouraging gender equality, with agriculture leading the way. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signaled his commitment to strengthening Ethiopia’s gender equality by appointing women to 50 percent of his cabinet and appointing the country’s first female president, defense minister and chief justice. The government’s Gender Equality Strategy for Ethiopia’s Agriculture Sector is a welcome improvement on past agriculture policies, and its latest Wheat Sector Development Strategy focuses on promoting women´s participation in extension and training programs. Under the leadership of Director General Mandefro Nigussie, the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) has drafted a strategy for gender mainstreaming, developed gender guidelines and recruited 100 new female scientists, constituting the highest percentage of women researchers in its history.

However, according to our research, there is a clear gap between policies and actions. Women living in male-headed households face different constraints from those in female-headed households, yet very little data exists on them. Ethiopia’s wheat strategy and other policies do not have sex-disaggregated indicators and targets. Women are seen as a homogeneous category in policy, meaning that certain groups of women miss out on assistance.

To strengthen women’s role in the agriculture sector, more internal reflection on gender and learning is required across institutions and organizations. Our new report offers a full list of recommendations for the research, policy and donor communities. Among other suggestions, we recommend that:
• the research sector move beyond surveying household heads and use diverse research methods to understand systems within farming households;
• the education ministry develop a Gender in Agriculture specialization at a national university to make progress filling the existing gaps in expertise and that
• donors invest more in gender-related agriculture research.

Ethiopia has taken great strides towards recognizing the important role of women in agricultural productivity. If it wants to become self-sufficient in wheat—and meet the sustainable development goals (SDGs)—it must make the extra effort to follow through with these efforts. At this critical time, the country cannot afford to ignore women’s needs.

The “Understanding Gender in Wheat-based Livelihoods for Enhanced WHEAT R4D Impact” project ran from 2014 to 2018 and sought to improve the focus on gender and social equity in wheat-related research and development in Ethiopia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Ethiopia, the project included analysis of literature and gender policies, a stakeholder analysis of government and non-government actors, qualitative research with 275 male and female farmers and a gender audit and capacity assessment of EIAR. 

This research was made possible by the generous financial support of BMZ — the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany. 

New infographics illustrate impact of wheat blast

Wheat blast is a fast-acting and devastating fungal disease that threatens food safety and security in the Americas and South Asia.

First officially identified in Brazil in 1984, the disease is widespread in South American wheat fields, affecting as much as 3 million hectares in the early 1990s.

 In 2016, it crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and Bangladesh suffered a severe outbreak. Bangladesh released a blast-resistant wheat variety—developed with breeding lines from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)—in 2017, but the country and region remain extremely vulnerable.

The continued spread of blast in South Asia—where more than 100 million tons of wheat are consumed each year—could be devastating.

Researchers with the CIMMYT-led and USAID-supported Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA) and Climate Services for Resilient Development (CSRD) projects partner with national researchers and meteorological agencies on ways to work towards solutions to mitigate the threat of wheat blast and increase the resilience of smallholder farmers in the region. These include agronomic methods and early warning systems so farmers can prepare for and reduce the impact of wheat blast.

This series of infographics shows how wheat blast spreads, its potential effect on wheat production in South Asia and ways farmers can manage it.   

This work is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). CSISA partners include CIMMYT, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

CIMMYT and its partners work to mitigate wheat blast through projects supported by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), CGIAR Research Program on WHEAT, and the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture.

See more on wheat blast here: https://www.cimmyt.org/wheat-blast/

Madhav Bhatta identifies new unique genes for the use of synthetics in wheat breeding

This profile of PhD student and visiting CIMMYT-Turkey researcher Madhav Bhatta, by Emma Orchardson was originally posted on InSide CIMMYT.

Madhav Bhatta at a IWWIP testing site in Turkey.

“Agriculture has always been my passion. Since my childhood, I’ve been intrigued by the fact that agriculture can provide food for billions of people, and without it, we cannot survive.”   

Wheat is one of the world’s most widely grown cereal crops. Global production between 2017 and 2018 exceeded 700 million tons and fed more than one third of the world’s population. Based on the current rate of population increase, cereal production will need to increase by at least 50 percent by 2030.

However, biotic and abiotic stresses such as crop diseases and drought continue to place significant constraints on agricultural production and productivity. Global wheat yield losses due to diseases such as wheat rust have been estimated at up to $5 billion per year since the 1990s, and rising temperatures are thought to reduce wheat production in developing countries by up to 30 percent.

“The importance of biotic and abiotic stress resistance of wheat to ensuring food security in future climate change scenarios is not disputed,” says Madhav Bhatta. “The potential of wide-scale use of genetic resources from synthetic wheat to accelerate and focus breeding outcomes is well known.”

In his recently completed a PhD project, Bhatta focused on the identification of genes and genomic regions controlling resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses in synthetic hexaploid wheat, that is, wheat created from crossing modern wheat with its ancient grass relatives. His research used rich genetic resources from synthetic wheat to identify superior primary synthetics possessing resistance to multiple stresses. It also aimed to identify the respective genes and molecular markers that can be used for market-assisted transfer of the genes into high-yielding modern wheat germplasm.

“My study sought to evaluate the variation within this novel synthetic germplasm for improved grain yield, quality and mineral content, reduced toxic heavy metal accumulation, and identify the genes contributing to better yield, end-use and nutritional quality.”

“Working in a collaborative environment with other scientists and farmers was the most enjoyable aspect of my research.”

Working under the joint supervision of Stephen Baenziger, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Alexey Morgounov, CIMMYT, Bhatta spent two consecutive summers conducting field research at various research sites across Turkey. The research was conducted within the framework of the International Winter Wheat Improvement Program (Turkey-CIMMYT-ICARDA). Over the course of six months, he evaluated 126 unique synthetic wheat lines developed from two introgression programs, which he selected for their genetic diversity.

“The most fascinating thing was that we were able to identify several lines that were not only resistant to multiple stresses, but also gave greater yield and quality,” says Bhatta. “These findings have a direct implication for cereal breeding programs.”

Bhatta and his collaborators recommended 17 synthetic lines that were resistant to more than five stresses, including rusts, and had a large number of favorable alleles for their use in breeding programs. They also recommended 29 common bunt resistant lines, seven high yielding drought tolerant lines, and 13 lines with a high concentration of beneficial minerals such as iron and zinc and low cadmium concentration.

“We identified that the D-genome genetic diversity of synthetics was more than 88 percent higher than in a sample of elite bread wheat cultivars,’ Bhatta explains. “The results of this study will provide valuable information for wheat genetic improvement through the inclusion of this novel genetic variation for cultivar development.”

Madhav Bhatta completed his PhD in Plant Breeding and Genetics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he was a Monsanto Beachell-Borlaug International Scholar. He is now based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, where he recently began a postdoctoral research position in the Cereal Breeding and Genetics program. He is currently working on optimizing genomic selection models for cereal breeding programs and he looks forward to future collaborations with both public and private institutions.

The seeds of the superior synthetics are now available from CIMMYT-Turkey. For more information, contact Alexey Morgounov (a.morgounov@cgiar.org).

Read more about the results of Bhatta’s investigation in the recently published articles listed below:

  1. Bhatta M., P.S. Baenizger, B. Waters, R. Poudel, V. Belamkar, J. Poland, and A. Morgounov. 2018. Genome-Wide Association Study Reveals Novel Genomic Regions Associated with 10 Grain Minerals in Synthetic Hexaploid Wheat. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 19 (10), 3237.
  2. Bhatta M., A. Morgounov, V. Belamkar, A. Yorgancilar, and P.S. Baenziger. 2018. Genome-Wide Association Study Reveals Favorable Alleles Associated with Common Bunt Resistance in Synthetic Hexaploid Wheat. Euphytica 214 (11). 200.
  3. Bhatta M, A. Morgounov, V. Belamkar, and P. S. Baenziger. 2018. Genome-Wide Association Study Reveals Novel Genomic Regions for Grain Yield and Yield-Related Traits in Drought-Stressed Synthetic Hexaploid Wheat. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 19 (10), 591.
  4. Bhatta M, A. Morgounov, V. Belamkar, J. Poland, and P. S. Baenziger. 2018. Unlocking the Novel Genetic Diversity and Population Structure of Synthetic Hexaploid Wheat. BMC Genomics, 19:591. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12864-018-4969-2.
  5. Morgunov A., A. Abugalieva, A. Akan, B. Akın, P.S. Baenziger, M. Bhatta et al. 2018. High-yielding Winter Synthetic Hexaploid Wheats Resistant to Multiple Diseases and Pests. Plant genetic resources, 16(3): 273-278.

Q&A with Dave Hodson on MARPLE and Big Data

CIMMYT’s Dave Hodson taking wheat rust samples with Ethiopian farmers. Photo credit: John Innes Centre

The MARPLE (Mobile And Real-time PLant disease) project – a project to test and pilot a revolutionary mobile lab in Ethiopia, led by the John Innes Centre, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR)—won the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture Inspire Challenge Scale Up award in 2018.

The Inspire Challenge encourages CGIAR partners, universities and others to use big data approaches through innovative pilot projects to advance agricultural research and development. To be named a winner, projects must have real potential for developmental impact, have mobilized underused or misused data, and demonstrate meaningful partnerships with CGIAR and other sector members. Ultimately, the Inspire Challenge looks for novel approaches to inform policies and applications in agriculture and food security.

We sat down with CIMMYT Principal Scientist and rust pathologist Dave Hodson to ask him about the project and its relationship with Big Data for Agriculture.

What is the significance of Big Data to your work?
Advances in sequencing technology, and the use of innovative big data approaches on sequence data from thousands of yellow rust isolates, opened the door for Diane Saunders and colleagues at the John Innes Centre in the UK to develop revolutionary, near-real time, mobile pathogen diagnostic techniques using portable palm-sized gene sequencers. The final result being the first operational system in the world using nanopore sequence technology for rapid diagnostics and surveillance of complex fungal pathogens in situ.

How do you see the role of the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture in your work?
Support from the CGIAR Big Data Platform was critical to establish the partnership between John Innes, the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and CIMMYT and enable piloting and testing of the new MARPLE diagnostic platform in Ethiopia. The choice of Ethiopia to be the first country for initial testing was based on several key factors. Firstly, a strong national partner in EIAR; secondly, the critical importance of wheat and wheat rust diseases in the country. Ethiopia is the largest wheat producer in sub-Saharan Africa, but it is also considered the gateway for new wheat rust strains entering into Africa from Asia. All these factors made Ethiopia the highest priority country to take the lead in testing this revolutionary new and rapid pathogen diagnostics platform.

How did it impact this MARPLE project?
The pilot and subsequent scale-up project from the CGIAR Big Data Platform has enabled in-country capacity to be developed, and cutting edge technology for rapid pathogen diagnostics to be deployed in the front-line in the battle against devastating wheat rust diseases. The scientific innovation in developing the MARPLE platform, coupled to the suitability of the technology for developing country partners has now attracted support and interest from other donors. Matching funds were recently obtained for the scale -up phase of MARPLE from the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat project (implemented by Cornell University and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development). This scale-up phase of the project will see a set of distributed MARPLE hubs established and embedded within the Ethiopian wheat research system – resulting in a sentinel system for the rapid detection of new yellow rust races that is unparalleled anywhere in the world. The scientific breakthrough in developing rapid diagnostics for complex fungal pathogens using nanopore sequencing will permit the development of similar systems for other important fungal diseases in the future.

The MARPLE project was selected as a 2017 winner, with the team receiving 100,000 USD to put their ideas into practice. The team came runners up for the Scale Up award the following year, receiving an additional USD 125,000 for their outstanding ability to demonstrate the project’s proven viability and potential for impact.

Scaling to new heights in agriculture

How to scale? This question frequently comes up as projects look to expand and replicate results. In order to sustain enduring impacts for projects after their lifetime, agricultural programs are turning to scaling strategies. These strategies look beyond the numbers that are reached within a project and include sustainability and transformation beyond the project context. Methods and tools exist that help anticipate realistic and responsible scaling pathways.

The Scaling team at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), led by Lennart Woltering, drives the initiative to incorporate scaling principles into existing and developing projects to maximize impact.

Maria Boa recently joined the team as Scaling Coordinator. Last year, Boa and Woltering participated in regional meetings on scaling in Morocco, Tunisia and Vietnam, which highlighted the need for better dissemination of information on how to approach scaling, in addition to its benefits.

Participants of the Tunisia workshop collaborate on a group exercise.

According to Boa, one of the key messages highlighted throughout these events was that in order for scaling to take hold and be integrated into projects, “…there needs to be a shift in mindset to accept that change is complex and that most projects only address a fraction of the problem.” This is essential in using scaling to effectively support long-term results.

At a workshop in Tunisia organized by ICARDA, IFAD and CIMMYT in November 2018, many participants expressed interest in scaling strategy tools, but were puzzled on how to integrate them into their specific projects. Many determined that they were stuck developing scaling strategies in an outdated framework, or one that strictly focused on using technological innovations. One participant admitted that she was skeptical of scaling perspectives because many did not lie in her field of expertise.

The November 2018 CCAFS SEA Conference on Scaling in Vietnam provided a platform for the sharing and learning of experiences in the scaling world. Some of the key messages from the event included the importance of scaling agricultural innovations taking place in complex systems of agricultural transformation, and the necessity of joint cooperation from all involved stakeholders and their openness to taking on challenges as a way to support sustainable system change.

According to Boa, scaling is a process that heavily relies on strategic collaboration for lasting impact. “Projects often don’t take into account how they’re a part of a larger chain of potential change,” she says.

Already recognized as a sustainable leader within scaling, CIMMYT is looking to strengthen scaling efforts in order to foster a more enduring impact within CIMMYT projects and beyond.

Lennart Woltering presents at the CCAFS SEA Conference in Vietnam.

Currently, the Scaling team at CIMMYT is conducting research on the “science of scaling” as it continues to function as a “help desk,” providing support integrating scaling principles in proposals and projects. Its primary role is to consider a project’s scaling needs and guide the development of an informed strategy to leverage efforts and resources. Boa hopes that by integrating responsible scaling approaches early on, projects can better balance the trade-offs associated with change.

Success in scaling is measured by a project’s enduring impact. However, stakeholders need more experience and capacity to see programs through to their end and be willing to monitor them beyond that lifespan. CIMMYT is developing and collecting the tools to support stakeholders with these specific capacities.

Developing a scaling strategy can also bring additional benefits: a discussion about scaling opens the door for raising awareness and fostering actions among different stakeholders towards system change and sustainable impact.

University of Queensland honors student studies tan spot resistance in wheat at CIMMYT

This story, part of a series on the international agricultural research projects of recipients of the Crawford Fund’s International Agricultural Student Award, was originally posted on the Crawford Fund blog

In 2018, Tamaya Peressini, from The Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI), a research institute of the University of Queensland (UQ), travelled to CIMMYT in Mexico as part of her Honours thesis research focused on a disease called tan spot in wheat.

Tamaya performing disease evaluations 10 days post infection at CIMMYT’s glasshouse facilities

Tan spot is caused by the pathogen Pyrenophora triciti-repentis (Ptr), and her project aimed to evaluate the resistance of tan spot in wheat to global races to this pathogen.

“The germplasm I’m studying for my thesis carries what is known as adult plant resistance (or APR) to tan spot, which has demonstrated to be a durable source of resistance in other wheat pathosystems such as powdery mildew,” said Tamaya.

Symptoms of tan spot on wheat plants

Tan spot is prevalent worldwide, and in Australia causes the most yield loss out of the foliar wheat diseases. In Australia, there is only one identified pathogen race that is prevalent called Ptr Race 1. For Ptr Race 1, the susceptibility gene Tsn1 in wheat is the main factor that results in successful infection in Ptr strains that carry Toxin A. However, globally it is a more difficult problem, as there are seven other pathogen races that consist of different combinations of necrotrophic toxins. Hence, developing cultivars that are multi-race resistant to Ptr presents a significant challenge to breeders as multiple resistant genes would be required for resistance to other pathogens.

“At CIMMYT I evaluated the durability of APR I identified in plant material in Australia by inoculating with a local strain of Ptr and also with a pathogen that shares ToxA: Staganospora nodorum.”

“The benefit of studying this at CIMMYT was that I had access to different strains of the pathogen which carry different virulence factors of disease, I was exposed to international agricultural research, and importantly, I was able to create research collaborations that would allow the APR detected in this population to have the potential to reach developing countries to assist in developing durably resistant wheat cultivars for worldwide deployment,” explained Tamaya.

Recent work in Dr Lee Hickey’s laboratory in Queensland has identified several landraces from the Vavilov wheat collection that exhibited a novel resistance to tan spot known as adult plant resistance (APR). APR has proven to be a durable and broad-spectrum source of resistance in wheat crops; namely with the Lr34 gene which confers resistance to powdery mildew and leaf stem rust of wheat.

“My research is focussed on evaluating this type of resistance and identifying whether it is resistant to multiple pathogen species and other races of Ptr. This is important to the Queensland region, as the northern wheat belt is significantly affected by tan spot disease. Introducing durable resistance genes to varieties in this region would be an effective pre-breeding strategy because it would help develop crop varieties that would have enhanced resistance to tan spot should more strains reach Australia. Furthermore, it may provide durable resistance to other necrotrophic pathogens of wheat,” said Tamaya.

The plant material Tamaya studied in her honours thesis was a recombinant inbred line (RIL) population, with the parental lines being the APR landrace (carries Tsn1) and the susceptible Australian cultivar Banks (also carries Tsn1). To evaluate the durability of resistance in this population to other strains of Ptr, this material along with the parental lines of the population and additional land races from the Vavilov wheat collection were sent to CIMMYT for Tamaya to perform a disease assay.

“At CIMMYT I evaluated the durability of APR identified in plant material in Australia by inoculating with a local strain of Ptr and also with a pathogen that shares ToxA: Staganospora nodorum. After infection, my plant material was kept in 100 per cent humidity for 24 hours (12 hours light and 12 hours dark) and then transferred back to regular glasshouse conditions. At 10 days post infection I evaluated the resistance in the plant material.”

From the evaluation, the APR RIL line demonstrated significant resistance compared to the rest of the Australian plant material against both pathogens. The results are highly promising, as they demonstrate the durability of the APR for both pre-breeding and multi-pathogen resistance breeding. Furthermore, this plant material is now available for experimental purposes at CIMMYT where further trials can validate how durable the resistance is to other necrotrophic pathogens and also be deployed worldwide and be tested against even more strains of Ptr.
“During my visit at CIMMYT I was able to immerse myself in the Spanish language and take part in professional seminars, tours, lab work and field work around the site. A highlight for me was learning to prepare and perform toxin infiltrations for an experiment comparing the virulence of different strains of spot blotch.”

“I also formed valuable friendships and research partnerships from every corner of the globe and had valuable exposure to the important research underway at CIMMT and insight to the issues that are affecting maize and wheat growers globally. Of course, there was also the chance to travel on weekends; where I was able to experience the lively Mexican culture and historical sites – another fantastic highlight to the trip!”

Visiting the Sun and Moon temples of Teotihuacan

“I would like to thank CIMMYT and Dr Pawan Singh for hosting me and giving the opportunity to learn, grow and experience the fantastic research that is performed at CIMMYT and opportunities to experience parts of Mexico. The researchers and lab technicians were all so friendly and accommodating. I would also like to thank my supervisor Dr Lee Hickey for introducing this project collaboration with CIMMYT. Lastly, I would like to thank the Crawford Fund Queensland Committee for funding this visit; not only was I able to immerse myself in world class plant pathology research, I have been given valuable exposure to international agricultural research that will give my research career a boost in the right direction,” concluded Tamaya.