Posts Tagged ‘Borlaug Global Rust Initiative’

Dave Hodson highlights “major breakthroughs” in rust disease response at the 2020 Borlaug Global Rust Initiative Technical Workshop

By Madeline Dahm

Dave Hodson, principal scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), examined over a decade of progress from global partners in the battle to detect and respond to global wheat rust diseases at a keynote address at the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) Technical Workshop in early October.

International training participants learning to evaluate stem rust symptoms on wheat. Photo: Petr Kosina/CIMMYT.

Rust response in the 2000s: sounding the alarm

When the first signs of Ug99 – a deadly strain of wheat stem rust – were noticed in Uganda in 1998, farmers and researchers did not understand the full threat of this disease, or where it would travel next. After Nobel Prize-winning breeder Norman Borlaug sounded the alarm to world leaders, the BGRI was formed and stakeholders from around the world came together to discuss this quickly growing problem. They realized that first, they must develop effective monitoring and surveillance systems to track the pathogen.

Starting in 2008, the initial vision for the global rust monitoring system was developed and the first steps taken to build the global rust surveillance community. Expanding surveillance networks requires a strong database, increased capacity development and well-established national focal points. With standardized surveillance protocols, training and GPS units distributed to over 29 countries, data began to flow more efficiently into the system. This, combined with a preliminary study of the influence of wind and rainfall patterns, improved scientists’ ability to predict areas of higher risk. Furthermore, the group knew that it would be key to integrate race analysis data, expand access to information and eventually expand the system to include other rusts as well.

“Fast forward to today, and we’re now looking at one of the world’s largest international crop disease monitoring systems. We have over 39,000 geo-referenced survey records from >40 countries in the database now, and 9500+ rust isolate records,” said Hodson.

Implementation  of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) and Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) projects – predecessors to Accelerating Genetic Gains in Maize and Wheat for Improved Livelihoods (AGG)  – and other key projects advanced this surveillance system, providing early warnings of potential rust epidemics to scientists and farmers.

An important part of this success comes from the Global Rust Reference Center in Denmark, where scientists have put together a state-of-the-art data management system, known as the “Wheat Rust Toolbox,”; providing a flexible centralized database,  rapid data input from mobile devices, data export and a suite of database-driven display tools. The system is flexible enough to handle multiple crops and multiple diseases, including all three wheat rusts.  

A united front

Another critical element to this surveillance system is a global network of rust pathotyping labs around the world. 

“We currently have good surveillance coverage across the world, especially the developing country wheat-growing areas,” says Hodson. “Coupling sampling from that survey network to these labs have enabled us to track the pathogen.”

This is particularly important in the face of a rapidly mutating pathogen. Not only are new variants of Ug99 appearing and spreading, but also other important new races of stem rust are being detected and spreading in places as far-flung as Sicily, Sweden, Siberia, Ecuador, Ethiopia and Georgia. In many regions, we are seeing a re-emergence of stem rust as a disease of concern.

“We now know there are 14 races of Ug99 confirmed across 13 countries. We have seen increased virulence of the pathogen, it  is mutating and migrating, and [has] spread over large distances.”

Furthermore, yellow rust has emerged as a disease of major global importance. The spread of yellow rust and appearance of highly virulent new races seems to be increasing over time. Several regions are now experiencing large-scale outbreaks as a result of the incursion of new races. For example, in South America, causing one of the largest outbreaks in 30 years.

Major breakthroughs in prediction and surveillance

Despite the increased spread and virulence of wheat rusts, the global community of partners has made serious advances in prediction, tracking and treatment of pathogens.

The University of Cambridge and the UK Met Office have developed advanced spore dispersal and epidemiological models for wheat rusts, resulting in a major leap forward in terms of understanding rust movements and providing a foundation for operational, in-season early warning systems. Operational, early warning is already a reality in Ethiopia and similar systems are now being tested in South Asia.

“These models are actually able to predict many of the movements we are now seeing globally,” says Hodson.

“In Ethiopia, information is going out to partners in weekly advisories, as well as targeted SMS alerts using the 8028 farmer hotline developed by the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), with over 4 million subscribers. It makes it possible to get ahead of the disease in key areas–a major breakthrough,” he said, noting plans underway to expand the system to more countries.

In addition, innovative diagnostics such as  the award-winning MARPLE rapid, field-based diagnostic tool developed with the John Innes Centre and Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), are transforming the time it takes to detect potentially damaging new races. Resulting in more opportunities for early warning and timely, effective control responses.

The future of wheat research and disease management 

“Clearly, we’re going to need more multidisciplinary approaches to combat these increasing threats from transboundary diseases,” he says, though very optimistic for the future of wheat rust disease forecasting, early warning systems and diagnostics.

Thanks to a “truly fantastic” global community of partners and donors, the global scientific community has built one of the world’s largest crop disease monitoring systems to track and combat aggressive, rapidly spreading wheat rust diseases. Its continued success will depend on embracing state of the art technology – from molecular diagnostics to artificial intelligence – and developing a plan for long-term sustainability.


Hans Braun receives prestigious Norman Borlaug Award for Lifetime Achievement in Wheat Research

Oct. 12, 2020

This story is based on a piece posted on the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative’s (BGRI) blog written by Linda McCandless. View the original post here.

The BGRI community honors four individuals who have been integral to the BGRI from the beginning. Photo: BGRI

Hans Braun, the director of the Global Wheat Program (GWP) at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), has received the Norman Borlaug Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2020 Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) Technical Workshop on Oct. 9, for nearly four decades of wheat research.

“We rest on the shoulders of a lot of mighty people who have come before us,” said Ronnie Coffman, vice chair of BGRI, speaking to a global audience of wheat scientists and farmers at the Technical Workshop as he presented four individuals with the award. “Each of these individuals has contributed to the improvement of wheat and smallholder livelihoods in major and enduring ways.”

Responsible for technical direction and implementation of the GWP and CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), Hans Braun leads and manages a team of 40 internationally recruited scientists who develop wheat germplasm. This germplasm is distributed to around 200 cooperators in wheat producing countries worldwide, and is responsible for the derived varieties being grown on more than 50 percent of the spring wheat area in developing countries.

Lifetime achievement

“In his 35 years with CIMMYT, Hans has become familiar with all major wheat-based cropping systems in the developing and developed world,” said Coffman, who called Hans Braun an important collaborator and close personal friend.

“Hans was integral to the BGRI’s efforts in preventing Ug99 and related races of rust from taking out much of the 80% of the world’s wheat that was susceptible when Ug99 was first identified in 1999,” said Coffman. He “has been an integral partner in the development and implementation of the Durable Rust Research in Wheat (DRRW) and Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) projects.”

At the virtual BGRI workshop, Hans delivered a keynote speech accepting the award and discussing the bright future of wheat, despite the many challenges that lie ahead.

“The future of wheat improvement in developing countries remains on the shoulders of public organizations and institutions. It is paramount that we share germplasm, information and knowledge openly,” he said.

Hans Braun has dedicated nearly four decades to wheat research. Photo: BGRI

He emphasized the need to “keep the herd together” and maintain strong, global partnerships.

He also noted the importance of continuing to improve nutritional content, growing within planetary boundaries, and taking farmers’ preferences seriously. He highlighted CIMMYT’s exceptional capacity as one of the world’s largest and most impactful wheat breeding programs, and encouraged national partners to continue their close collaboration.

He recalled what Norman Borlaug told him in 2004, when he became head of the Global Wheat Program: “‘Hans, I have confidence you can lead the program and I will always help you’ – and how he did.”

“I would like to thank all with whom I cooperated over four decades and who contributed to make CIMMYT’s program strong,” concluded Hans. “I am very optimistic that the global wheat community will continue to develop the varieties farmers need to feed 10 billion.”

Read the original article, learn more about the other highly distinguished scientists receiving this high honor, and access the entire workshop outcomes on the BGRI website.


BGRI launches virtual global wheat conference Oct. 7-9

This press release was originally posted on the website of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI).

As the world grapples with a disastrous human health crisis, scientists will gather virtually October 7-9 to discuss strategies to safeguard the health of one of the planet’s most important food sources — wheat.

The Borlaug Global Rust Initiative’s (BGRI) virtual technical workshop will bring together scientists at the forefront of wheat science for cutting-edge training and knowledge sharing. Experts from global institutions such as Cornell University, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), and the John Innes Centre, with presenters from Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Australia, Finland, Mexico, the United Kingdom and United States, will lead in-depth talks and discussions on the most pressing challenges facing global wheat security.

Event registration is now open.

“Right now we are witnessing the devastation that the global spread of disease can cause, and it underscores the continual threat that diseases pose to our most important food crops,” said Ronnie Coffman, vice-chair of the BGRI and an international professor in Cornell’s Department of Global Development and School of Integrative Plant Science. “Devastating wheat epidemics would be catastrophic to human health and wellbeing. October’s workshop is an opportunity for wheat scientists to converge virtually for the practical training and knowledge-sharing we need to fight numerous challenges.”

The three-day workshop in October will be broken up into sessions with keynotes from leading experts and presentations focused on key areas of wheat research:

  • Breeding technologies
  • Disease surveillance
  • Molecular host-pathogen interaction
  • Disease resistance
  • Gene stewardship

The BGRI is a strong proponent of responsible gene deployment to ensure the efficacy of disease resistant genes available to breeders. Since 2012, the BGRI has bestowed the Gene Stewardship Award in recognition of excellence in the development, multiplication and/or release of rust resistant wheat varieties that encourage diversity and complexity of resistance. The winners of the 2020 BGRI Gene Stewardship award will be announced at the workshop.

Maricelis Acevedo, associate director for science for the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project and researcher in Cornell’s Department of Global Development, said: “The BGRI has been at the forefront of developing the next generation of wheat warriors, especially in strengthening the technical and professional skills of women and men scientists from developing countries. We are taking a global approach to help reduce the threat of diseases that can overwhelm farmers’ wheat fields. Issues related to improving world food security, especially in the face of climate change, can only be addressed by a diverse and united global community.”

She added: “The BGRI’s technical workshop has long been the premiere meeting ground for wheat scientists around the world. It’s more important than ever that we come together to address the challenges before us.”

The BGRI 2020 Technical Workshop originally planned for June 1-4 in Norwich, United Kingdom was postponed due to COVID-19.

Wheat is one of the world’s largest primary commodity, with global production of over 700 million tons, grown on over 215 million hectares. Eaten by over 2.5 billion people in 89 countries, wheat provides 19% of the world’s total available calories and 20% of all protein.

Over the past 20 years, the global area under wheat production has not increased. To produce the required amount of wheat needed to feed the world’s growing population, researchers predict wheat yields must increase at least 1.4% per acre through 2030.

Wheat faces pressure from the changing environment and diseases, especially rust diseases increasingly prevalent in wheat-growing regions everywhere. The BGRI was formed in 2005 in response to a novel strain of rust discovered in East Africa known as Ug99 that posed risks of epidemic proportions to global wheat production. Norman Borlaug galvanized global scientists and donors in a bid to combat Ug99 and other disease pressures.

“The world averted disaster thanks to the commitment of researchers and farmers from all over the world who participated in the BGRI’s coordinated global response,” said Coffman. “With the backing of far-sighted donors, the BGRI focused on delivering rust-resilient varieties of wheat to farmers around the world, and dedicating our efforts to small-holder farmers in wheat-producing countries in Africa and Asia — men and women who do not always have access to new technologies and improved seed.” 

Registration page is now live.

The BGRI is a community of hunger fighters dedicated to protecting the world’s wheat. The initiative receives funding through the DGGW project, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

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BGRI-led coalition protects world’s wheat crop

This story by Matt Hayes was originally published on the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative website.

When a novel strain of a wheat pathogen first emerged in East Africa in 1998, Norman Borlaug knew the world faced a dire threat to food security.

The virulent race of stem rust that became known as Ug99 was deadly to nearly all wheat varieties, threatening to cause epidemic losses in wheat fields around the globe. To combat the disease, the Borlaug and a team of committed scientists at Cornell, CIMMYT, ICARDA, FAO and other organizations sounded the global alarm in 2005. Those pioneers launched the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) to protect the global wheat supply against the spread of Ug99 and other challenges.

In a keynote speech delivered June 25 during the BGRI’s second virtual workshop, Ronnie Coffman, vice-chair of the BGRI, described those early efforts and the long-running scientific work to combat wheat disease.

The virtual “Take It to the Farmer” event featured videos and discussion with farmers and experts from around the wheat-growing world. Six wheat growers from five countries focused on the challenges they face — Felix Austin of F1 Seed in the UK, Hajo Mergo from Ethiopia, Deviprasad Aryal and Ramchandra Adhikari from Nepal, Esther Chelule from Kenya, Gurjeet Singh Mann from India, and Jesús Larraguibel Artola from Mexico. While wheat panelists discussed possible solutions  — Bill Angus from Angus Wheat in the UK; Hans Braun from CIMMYT, in Mexico; Anne Cichangi from KALRO, in Kenya; Bedada Girma, from EIAR, Ethiopia; Chhavi Tiwari from Shri Vaishnav Institute of Agriculture in India, and Vijay Vijayaraghavan from Sathguru Management Consultants in India.

According to Coffman, the world averted disaster thanks to the coordinated global effort led by Cornell’s BGRI with more than $100 million in funding for the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) and Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) projects from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK aid from the British people.

The BGRI and the projects it managed was essential to protecting one of the world’s most important crops, according to Coffman.

Crucial outcomes from the DRRW and DGGW projects noted by Coffman include vast increases in land area planted to rust-resistant varieties, global expansion of a wheat pathogen surveillance network, more young wheat scientists in countries around the world — especially women — trained to be wheat breeders, pathologists, gender experts and project leaders, and the establishment of a global wheat community dedicated to the improvement of one of the world’s most important crops.

“For 12 years, through the DRRW and the DGGW projects, the BGRI has focused on delivering rust-resistant varieties of wheat to the farmers around the world who depend on agriculture and wheat production for their livelihoods,” said Coffman. “We have been especially dedicated to smallholder farmers in wheat-producing countries in Africa and Asia. Men and women who do not always have the access to new technologies — like improved seed — that they need.”

During the past 12 years, BGRI scientists have released more than 270 new varieties of wheat with greater resistance to diseases and environmental stresses such as climate change, working with national programs in 11 at-risk countries.

“These varieties have contributed enormously to improving the livelihoods of the farmers who adopted them,” Coffman said.

Maricelis Acevedo, associate director for science for DGGW, said that the successes were only possible by building a network of global researchers working in tandem with farmers on a common goal to secure the world’s wheat.

“Science and agriculture are forever linked in our enduring quest to feed the world,” Acevedo said. “The BGRI is committed to making sure scientific innovations help the world’s farmers prosper.”

One element of those efforts is robust surveillance of wheat pathogens. To track the spread of rust and other diseases, the BGRI expanded the international monitoring network from two countries in 2007 to 43 today. By utilizing precise location tagging equipment and mobile devices, “our partners now operate the world’s largest international crop disease monitoring system in the world,” said Coffman.

Mobile plant disease diagnostic technologies allow researchers to identify individual strains of complex fungal pathogens directly in the field, making it easier for farmers to quell outbreaks quickly. 

The projects also helped establish facilities needed to monitor and respond to diseases. Investments in greenhouses, irrigation systems, laboratories, field equipment and communications technology gave global partners the tools needed to collaborate with other wheat scientists around the world to breed more rust resistant wheat, and help farmers stay ahead of epidemics caused by evolving races of rust. At nursery facilities built in Ethiopia and Kenya, scientists are able to test elite wheat varieties from national wheat breeding programs around the world against various strains of rust.  

Long-term sustainability and durability depend on knowledgeable and dedicated scientists, according to Coffman. Since 2008, more than 1000 wheat scientists from countries around the world have been trained with funding from the projects, Coffman said.

“As we move forward, to 2030 and beyond, we must rededicate ourselves to understanding farmers’ needs because they are the ultimate beneficiaries of our work,” said Coffman.

“We will continue to build this coalition of great scientists committed to the big, big task of increasing food security one wheat field at a time,” said Acevedo, in her closing remarks.

The next BGRI Virtual Workshop will take place in October.

Watch Take It to the Farmer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSOdFDZUZrY&feature=youtu.be

Hunger fighters “Take It to the Farmer” in June 25 virtual event from the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative

CGIAR Research Program on Wheat Director Hans Braun will join wheat experts from around the world to discuss evolving partnerships and ways to improve access to new technologies and improved wheat varieties in a virtual event convened by the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) next week.

The BGRI interactive virtual event “Take It to the Farmer: Reflections on Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat” will take place on June 25 from 10-11:30 a.m. EDT.  The event will present a series of reflections on what it means to deliver genetic gain in wheat to farmers and ways to improve the future impact of wheat research.

Wheat researchers and farmers have made significant progress over the past 12 years delivering on the promise of greater food security and nutrition globally. But there is still much work to be done.

“Take It to the Farmer” is the second in a series of virtual events from the BGRI. The June 25 event will feature videos from wheat farmers in the United Kingdom, Kenya, Ethiopia, Nepal, India and Mexico as they discuss particular challenges they face in their countries, as well as discussions with leading wheat experts about the impact of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) and Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) projects. Both projects received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK government.

“Over the last 12 years, wheat researchers have learned that it is not enough to have great research innovations and hope they make their way to farmers’ fields,” said Maricelis Acevedo, associate director for science for the DGGW project. “For agricultural innovations to make it the last mile into farmers’ fields, we have learned that is necessary to talk to the farmers, listen to the farmers, and work directly with the farmers. We are leveraging public-private partnerships, and tracking and exchanging germplasm across international boundaries in the ongoing fight to protect the world’s wheat.”

Bill Angus, principal of Angus Wheat Consultants Ltd and panelist in the June 25 event, said that collaboration is critical as the world engages with growing challenges to wheat production: “The UK is currently a yellow rust hotspot for evolving races of rust. With the BGRI, F1 Seed Ltd and CIMMYT, we are working to transfer resistance genes available in CIMMYT lines to UK germplasm and vice-versa. Our objective is to strengthen the wheat germplasm pool and optimize the use of resistance genes,” he said.

Angus added: “Researchers need a better understanding of what disease resistance genes we are using globally and then develop robust utilization strategies with seed companies to give wheat growers long-term security and options to combat ever-evolving races of rust. This is a great example of how public and private sectors can work together.”

Ronnie Coffman, BGRI vice-chair and director of International Programs in Cornell’s Department of Global Development, will provide the keynote address, “Impact of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat and Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat Projects: 12 Years of Research and Variety Adoption.” Coffman is the Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professor and international professor in the Department of Global Development and School of Integrative Plant Science.

Acevedo will host a panel discussion on evolving partnerships and ways to improve access to new technologies and improved wheat varieties. Panelists include:

  • Bill Angus, owner of Angus Wheat and international wheat consultant (Angus Wheat, UK)
  • Hans Braun, director of CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (CIMMYT, Mexico)
  • Anne Gichangi, senior research scientist and agricultural economist, Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Organizations (KALRO/Kenya)
  • Bedada Girma, technical coordinator, DGGW-Ethiopia, Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research (EIAR/Ethiopia)
  • Chhavi Tiwari, assistant professor at Shri Vaishnav Institute of Agriculture, Indore, India, and 2014 WIT awardee
  • Vijay Vijayaraghaven, chairman of Sathguru Management Consultants (Sathguru/India)

Registration information is available here. The event will be livestreamed on Zoom and the BGRI Facebook page.

Seed vaults, field experiments and being evacuated; a PhD adventure

This blog was originally posted on the website of the John Innes Centre.

Last month we were proud to announce that PhD student Anna Backhaus, was the recipient of a prestigious Women in Triticum (WIT) award.

Here, Anna reflects on the award and an interrupted but still memorable trip to Mexico – and offers some advice for colleagues.

“In March I departed Norwich Airport expecting to spend the next month in Mexico. I had sown all my seeds at the John Innes Centre, cleaned my desk and handed over my beloved houseplants to friends. As part of receiving this year’s Women in Triticum (WIT) award we were invited to visit the international centre for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT) in Obregon Ciudad.

However, two weeks later I found myself living back home in my mother’s house, cooking wonky tortillas for dinner, a trip cut short by Covid-19. Despite the abrupt end of the trip, I’d had a wonderful journey.

The first days of the trip were spent in the CIMMYT headquarters, near Mexico City. Our group was Amor Yahyaoui, who was leading the training program and the other WIT awardees of 2019/20: Fiktre and Yewubdar from Ethiopia, Ritika from India, Valentina who just started her Post-doc in Canada and Dalma from Chile.

One of the highlights of the trip was that we spent so much time together as WITs and thus made great new friendships (possibly the slightly mad ending and evacuation out of Mexico also helped us to bond).

Upon our arrival, we immediately started with what we came for; the science, and joined the ongoing conference on insect pests.

We also got a tour of the centre’s facilities; my personal highlight was, of course, the cold vaults where the germplasm collection is stored. The vaults hold the seeds collected over many years in all regions of the world. The seeds and grains are valuable as they are used in today’s pre-breeding programs to introduce new genetic material and improve agronomic traits.

We got to see this pre-breeding material a few days later when we arrived in the field station 1,500 km north of Mexico City. In the field we talked with many CIMMYT scientists and got to see a snapshot of their work.

We also did some hands-on training, such as crossing wheat varieties, scoring of diseases or washing roots with high pressure hoses (for logging experiments). At the Obregon CIMMYT camp station we were also joined by another WIT awardee, Carolina, who works in the Physiology department of the centre.

I must say a huge thank you to everyone at CIMMYT, especially to Carolina and her colleagues from physiology as well as Karim Anmar, head of the Durum program, for making our two-week stay at CIMMYT so fantastic.

Most of the usual visitor’s program for WITs had been cancelled due to Covid-19 and much of our day-to-day program had to be improvised. They all made a huge effort and went out of their way to introduce us to CIMMYT, take us to the fields, explain their work to us and, of course, show us life in Obregon. I am looking forward to seeing them all again at future wheat(y) meetings.

The Women in Triticum is awarded yearly to early career scientists by the BGRI (Borlaug Global Rust Initiative) to continue the legacy of the pioneering agronomist Dr Norman Borlaug. The award is supported by Jeanie Borlaug, daughter of the Nobel peace prize laureate.

I think the award is so relevant as institutes, conferences, and especially (senior positions) around the globe are still male dominated. The opportunities, such as visiting CIMMYT and attending the bi-annual BGRI meeting, that come with the award are great opportunities and I would encourage everyone to apply (and not only once, some of us applied five or more times)”.

Anna’s PhD is funded by the John Innes Foundation. She is a second-year student supervised by Professor Cristobal Uauy and Professor Richard Morris.

Borlaug Global Rust Initiative launches first virtual workshop

2020 Women in Triticum Award Celebration virtual event. Graphic: BGRI

The BGRI will launch its 2020 series of Virtual Workshops with a 2020 Women in Triticum (WIT) Award Celebration called “The Changing Face of Leadership and Research in Wheat,” in an interactive webinar Thursday, May 21 from 10-11 a.m. EDT.

“Our new Virtual Workshops are an opportunity for the global wheat community to engage with speakers from around the world,” said Maricelis Acevedo, associate director for science of the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project and faculty member in Cornell University’s Department of Global Development.

“In the time of COVID-19, we have to be creative and proactive. We are planning a series of virtual events as we continue our efforts to strengthen the world’s resilient to rust diseases,” she said.

The planned 2020 BGRI Technical Workshop in June in Norwich, UK was canceled due to the pandemic.

Acevedo invites everyone to join in the interactive Zoom webinar through the globalrust.org website, and/or watch the event live on Facebook at facebook.com/globalrust.

The 2020 WIT Early Career Awardees are Anna Backhaus (UK), Bharati Pandey (India), Yewubdar Ishetu Shewaye (Ethiopia), Paula Silva (Uruguay), and Peipeiu Zhang (China). The 2020 WIT Mentor is Evans Lagudah, from CSIRO, in Australia. Short videos about each winner’s work and their passion for wheat will be played during the celebration.

The hour-long event will also feature a keynote address by World Food Prize president Barbara Stinson on “The Importance of Gender in Assuring Global Food Security.”

Sarah Davidson Evanega, who initiated the WIT Award in 2010, will talk about “The History of the BGRI WIT Award.”

An interactive WIT Panel Discussion with four former WIT winners will be moderated by Hale Ann Tufan (2010), the 2019 winner of the Norman Borlaug Field Research and Application Award from the World Food Prize.  The panelists will discuss “The Future of Wheat Research: Aspirations and Visions.” The online audience can submit questions. Panelists include:

  • Sandra Dunckel (2013), from KWS UK Ltd.
  • Sarah Battenfield (2014), from Syngenta in the U.S.
  • Mercy Wamalwa (2016), from Egerton University in Kenya
  • Sarrah Ben M’Barek-Ben Romdhane (2017), from the Regional Field Crops Research Center of Béja, in Tunisia

More details are available on the BGRI website.

Borlaug Global Rust Initiative announces 2020 Women in Triticum prize winners

2020 Women in Triticum Award winners. Graphic: BGRI

The Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) announced its 2020 cohort of Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum (WIT) awardees honoring next-generation women scientists and mentors who have worked to increase gender parity in agriculture.

Five women wheat scientists from China, Ethiopia, Germany, India and Uruguay were named WIT Early Career Award winners, and a scientist in Australia was recognized with the 2020 WIT Mentor Award. The winners will be celebrated May 21 from 10-11 a.m. at the virtual event “The Changing Face of Leadership and Research in Wheat.” The event includes a keynote from World Food Prize president Barbara Stinson and a panel discussion with former WIT award winners.

“The future of wheat science depends on innovative, enthusiastic researchers,” said Maricelis Acevedo, associate director for science of the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project and faculty member in Cornell University’s Department of Global Development.

“We are thrilled to honor these incredible scientists with a WIT award and continue the tradition of recognizing the next generation of top-notch scientists and the people who mentor them,” she said.

The BGRI is an international consortium based at Cornell with the goal to protect the world’s wheat supplies. The global network of scientists and farmers work to reduce the world’s vulnerability to fungal rust diseases in wheat and enhance global productivity to withstand future threats to the crop.

With this cohort, the BGRI has recognized 55 early career award winners since 2010.

“Building capacity within the scientific community by encouraging and supporting the training of young women scientists has always been one of the BGRI’s key goals,” Acevedo said. “Over the last decade, these scientists have emerged as leaders across the wheat community. We sincerely thank all the mentors who have supported these women’s efforts.”

The WIT Early Career Award provides early career women working in wheat with the opportunity for additional training, mentorship, and leadership opportunities. The WIT Mentor Award, first awarded in 2011, recognizes the efforts of men and women who have played a significant role in shaping the careers of women working in wheat and demonstrated a commitment to increasing gender parity in agriculture.

Five 2020 WIT Early Career Winners

Anna Elizabeth Backhaus, from Germany, has been interested in wheat genetics since she was 12 years old. A second-year PhD student at the John Innes Centre, where she is supervised by Cristobal Uauy and Richard Morris, Backhaus focuses on the genetic network in control of early spike development and trying to understand how developmental decisions are encoded in the wheat genome. As part of her project, she is performing RNA-sequencing on sections of the young wheat spike using single cell technologies, and using this approach to identify genetic networks in control of spikelet number and grain number, two interlinked traits that control final plant yield. She is phenotyping these yield traits in the Watkins collection of about 800 wheat landraces to identify novel genes for spike traits. Backhaus studied plant sciences at the University of East Anglia (Bsc) and University Bonn (Msc). She has also worked at the Max Planck Institute in Cologne and ICARDA.

Bharati Pandey, from India, is working as a scientific officer in the Bioscience Group, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Mumbai, Maharashtra, India. In 2015 she completed her doctoral degree from Birla Institute of Technology. In her doctoral thesis “Structural and functional analysis of wheat genome based on expressed sequence tags in relation to abiotic stress,” she worked on identifying and validating single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) markers in abiotic stress-responsive genes, and identifying stress-induced microRNAs in wheat. As a Research Fellow at the ICAR-Indian Institute of Wheat and Barley Research Institute (IIWBR), she contributed to wheat genomics research by identifying and analyzing simple sequence repeat dynamics in three different rust fungi: stem, leaf and stripe rust. Pandey was also associated with the development and validation of microsatellite markers for wheat fungal pathogens including Karnal bunt and loose smut. Bharati and her team have designed and developed an Indian wheat database which allow users to retrieve information about molecular markers linked to rust resistance genes.

Yewubdar Ishetu Shewaye, from Ethiopia, works as a wheat breeder for the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), at the Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Center. Her main objectives are to empower the farming community in Ethiopia and other developing nations in the fight against wheat rust diseases, to reduce production costs for resource-poor farmers, and to increase yield. She completed her BS in plant science in 2010 at Madawalabu University, Ethiopia, and her MS at Hawassa University, where she focused on the identification and characterization of stripe rust resistance genes in wheat using conventional and molecular marker approaches. This work involved associating phenotypic data with genotypic data to identify rust resistance genes in wheat genotypes, and identifying diagnostic molecular markers. Shewaye is deeply interested in research areas such as screening and characterizing wheat genotypes for rusts, association mapping for rust resistance, identifying diagnostic markers, understanding the mechanisms of host-pathogen interactions, selecting the best parent combinations for crosses to pyramid resistance genes, and mining wheat germplasm to discover more durable rust resistance genes that will be beneficial to the whole wheat breeding community.

Paula Silva, from Uruguay, received her BS at the School of Science of Universidad de la Républica, and her MS from the School of Agronomy, in Uruguay. Her master’s thesis focused on breeding wheat for adult plant resistance against leaf rust. Her MS advisor, Dr. Silvia Germán, instilled in her a true passion for wheat breeding for disease resistance. She was further mentored at CIMMYT by Dr. Sybil Herrera-Foessel. In 2015, while studying molecular tools for characterizing wheat rust resistance genes at the Plant Breeding Institute of the University of Sydney, Dr. Urmil Bansal encouraged Silva to pursue a PhD, a journey that has led Silva to study genetics at Kansas State University with Jesse Poland. There, she works on breeding for barley yellow dwarf and blast resistance by characterizing wild relatives of wheat to search for novel sources of resistance. In 2019, she was appointed at INIA to lead part of the disease resistance breeding program as well as coordinate the Precision Wheat Phenotypic Platform for Wheat Diseases in collaboration with CIMMYT.

Peipei Zhang, from China, completed her PhD degree in Plant Pathology in 2019 at Hebei Agricultural University, where she acquired her BS and MS degrees, and now works as a researcher. During her PhD from 2018-19, she studied under Dr. Sridhar Bhavani and Professor Caixia Lan in Ravi Singh’s research group in CIMMYT, participating in systematic breeding and research methods. For the last decade, Zhang’s research has focused on wheat rust genetics, specifically on gene discovery and QTL mapping resistance to both leaf rust and stripe rust using bi-parental mapping populations, identification of leaf rust resistance genes in wheat cultivars using genome-wide association mapping, and map-based gene cloning for leaf rust resistance gene. She has identified potentially new genes and the closely linked markers of these genes which can be used in marker assisted selection and wheat breeding. Zhang hopes that she will be able to transform her research outcomes to benefit millions of smallholder farmers in China and other countries to reduce wheat loss due to rust diseases.

The WIT Mentor Award

The 2020 WIT Mentor awardee is Evans Lagudah, a Chief Research Scientist at CSIRO, Australia, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and an adjunct professor at the University of Sydney. Lagudah’s research interests cover basic studies on the molecular basis of multi-pathogen resistance genes, cloning of cereal immune receptors and genomic analyses/manipulation of targeted disease resistance traits. Among his research highlights are defining the molecular basis of adult plant rust resistance genes which represent novel classes of plant defense genes that function broadly in cereal crops against multiple pathogens. Lagudah operates at the interface between agriculture and fundamental molecular research, and his research ensures the rapid translation of new molecular discoveries into practical agriculture in the global grains industry. Lagudah continues to train and mentor PhD students, postdoctoral researchers and early- and mid-career scientists. He is a regular contributor to the West African Centre for Crop Improvement which trains the next generation of plant breeders in sub-Saharan Africa. He is among the world’s top 1% of most influential scientists as ranked by “Clarivate Analytics Highly Cited Researchers List” which identifies scientists who have demonstrated significant influence during the last decade.

More information about the winners can be found at the BGRI website.

Smarter deployment of disease-resistance genes critical for safeguarding world’s food supplies

This story by Matt Hayes was originally posted on the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative website.

Maricelis Acevedo inspects wheat samples with Murugasamy Sivasamy at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Regional station, Wellington. Photo: Matt Hayes / Cornell

In the worst years of the rust disease epidemic that decimated North American wheat fields in the 1950s, fungal spores riding wind currents across the continent reached into the sextillions — that’s a number with 21 zeros.

Severe wheat disease epidemics produce staggering numbers of spores containing incredible genetic diversity — and incalculable risks to global food supplies. If fungal spores encounter even a single susceptible wheat variety, natural selection positions the pathogen to take hold and proliferate, releasing more rounds of spores and spreading its own virulence genes across entire populations.  

Wheat breeders face a daunting task trying to defend against such a relentless barrage of evolving pathogens. In the battle, scientific ingenuity confronts biological innovation: wheat varieties that contain single disease-resistant genes can be easily overrun by rapidly evolving spores.

To safeguard food supplies and ensure durable disease resistance in wheat, scientists must embrace a globally integrated strategy that deploys resistant genes in a coordinated way, according to Maricelis Acevedo, associate director of science for the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project.

“We need to be smart about gene deployment,” Acevedo said at the All India Wheat and Barley meeting Aug. 25 in Indore, Madhya Pradesh.

“If we don’t change our mentality, we risk reliving the worst horrors of the past and the widespread hunger that results when rust diseases wipe out the wheat supply,” she said.

Acevedo cautioned that the release of susceptible or vulnerable varieties at a national level weakens wheat resistance on a global scale. Varieties with only one major effective resistance gene, which may appear adequate to withstand disease pressure in a field trial, are at increased risk to disease pressure when released into circulation. Varieties with only a single resistance gene risk tainting an otherwise effective gene for everybody and imperiling the wheat crop around the world.

Varieties with five to six disease-resistance genes make it mathematically unlikely that spores will have the genetic ability to defeat the resistance. Minnesota scientists in 1985 calculated that the probability a pathogen contains virulence to all six major genes is more than four times greater than the number of spores released in a single year in the US under stem rust epidemic levels. 

To reduce the chances of selection in pathogen populations, often caused by major genes, breeders exploit combinations of genes that may provide partial resistance to a broader number of races.

Ravi Singh gives his presentation at the All India Wheat and Barley meeting in Indore. Photo: Matt Hayes / Cornell

While only releasing varieties with stacked genes is the most prudent breeding strategy, there are factors that incentivize shortcuts, according to Acevedo. Plant breeders in some countries are often promoted based on the numbers of varieties released — not for their long-term usefulness. And, in some countries, there are political incentives to provide farmers with new varieties year after year rather than release fewer, but more durable varieties.

Teams of plant breeders employed by National Agricultural Research Systems in countries around the world develop improved crop varieties. Many wheat breeders receive lines from CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, which national scientists then cross with local varieties to adapt to local conditions. National scientists also breed their own from existing local varieties. The process to develop and release any new variety can take up to ten years and up to 15 years to make it to farmers fields.

 “A way to make varieties more durable for resistance to rusts is to use marker-assisted introgression of multiple resistance genes using speed breeding in recent varieties or promising varietal candidates, which also possess some of the known durable adult-plant resistance genes,” said Ravi Singh, distinguished scientist and head of Global Wheat Improvement at CIMMYT. The All India Wheat and Barley meeting was co-sponsored by CIMMYT and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

The Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) was established at Cornell to reduce the world’s vulnerability to stem, yellow and leaf rusts of wheat. Acevedo said the BGRI’s main impacts have resulted from scientific collaboration, commitment to pathogen monitoring, and development and deployment of rust resistant varieties. The BGRI established a Gene Stewardship Award in 2012 to encourage the release of varieties with complex and diverse disease resistance.

In 2018, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), in New Delhi, India, and associated institutions, received the BGRI Gene Stewardship Award in part for replacing susceptible wheat varieties with resistant varieties.

Those efforts have proven successful: on Aug. 24, in a reported delivered at the All India Wheat and Barley meeting, ICAR announced that India for the first time produced more than 100 million tons of wheat in a year.

DGGW is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK Aid by the British people.

Young women scientists who will galvanize global wheat research

By Laura Strugnell and Mike Listman

Winners of the Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum (WIT) Early Career Award pose in front of the statue of the late Nobel Peace laureate, Dr. Norman E. Borlaug. Included in the photo are Amor Yahyaoui, CIMMYT wheat training coordinator (far left), Jeanie Borlaug Laube (center, blue blouse), and Maricelis Acevedo, Associate Director for Science, the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat Project (to the right of Jeanie Borlaug Laube). Photo: CIMMYT/Mike Listman

CIUDAD OBREGÓN, Mexico (CIMMYT) – As more than 200 wheat science and food specialists from 34 countries gathered in northwestern Mexico to address threats to global nutrition and food security, 9 outstanding young women wheat scientists among them showed that this effort will be strengthened by diversity.

Winners of the Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum (WIT) Early Career Award joined an on-going wheat research training course organized by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), 21-23 March.

“As my father used to say, you are the future,” said Jeanie Borlaug Laube, daughter of the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, and mentor of many young agricultural scientists. Speaking to the WIT recipients, she said, “You are ahead of the game compared to other scientists your age.”

Established in 2010 as part of the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project led by Cornell University, the WIT program has provided professional development opportunities for 44 young women researchers in wheat from more than 20 countries.

The award is given annually to as many as five early science-career women, ranging from advanced undergraduates to recent doctoral graduates and postdoctoral fellows. Selection is based on a scientific abstract and statement of intent, along with evidence of commitment to agricultural development and leadership potential.

Women who will change their professions and the world

Weizhen Liu. Photo: WIT files

Weizhen Liu, a 2017 WIT recipient and postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University, is applying genome-wide association mapping and DNA marker technology to enhance genetic resistance in tetraploid and bread wheat to stripe rust, a major global disease of wheat that is quickly spreading and becoming more virulent.

“I am eager to join and devote myself to improving wheat yields by fighting wheat rusts,” said Liu, who received her bachelors in biotechnology from Nanjing Agricultural University, China, in 2011, and a doctorate from Washington State University in 2016. “Through WIT, I can share my research with other scientists, receive professional feedback, and build international collaboration.”

Mitaly Bansal, a 2016 WIT award winner, currently works as a Research Associate at Punjab Agricultural University, India. She did her PhD research in a collaborative project involving Punjab Agricultural University and the John Innes Centre, UK, to deploy stripe and leaf rust resistance genes from non-progenitor wild wheat in commercial cultivars.

Mitaly Bansal. Photo: WIT files

“I would like to work someday in a position of public policy in India,” said Bansal, who received the Monsanto Beachell-Borlaug scholarship in 2013. “That is where I could have the influence to change things that needed changing.”

Networking in the cradle of wheat’s “Green Revolution”

In addition to joining CIMMYT training for a week, WIT recipients will attend the annual Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) technical workshop, to be held this year in Marrakech, Morocco, from 14 to 17 April, and where the 2018 WIT winners will be announced.

The CIMMYT training sessions took place at the Norman Borlaug Experiment Station (CENEB), an irrigated desert location in Sonora State, northwestern Mexico, and coincided with CIMMYT’s 2018 “Visitors’ Week,” which took place from 19 to 23 March.

An annual gathering organized by the CIMMYT global wheat program at CENEB, Visitors’ Week typically draws hundreds of experts from the worldwide wheat research and development community. Participants share innovations and news on critical issues, such as the rising threat of the rust diseases or changing climates in key wheat farmlands.

Through her interaction with Visitors’ Week peers, Liu said she was impressed by the extensive partnering among experts from so many countries. “I realized that one of the most important things to fight world hunger is collaboration; no one can solve food insecurity, malnutrition, and climate change issues all by himself.”

A strong proponent and practitioner of collaboration, Norman E. Borlaug worked with Sonora farmers in the 1940-50s as part of a joint Rockefeller Foundation-Mexican government program that, among other outputs, generated high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat varieties. After bringing wheat self-sufficiency to Mexico, the varieties were adopted in South Asia and beyond in the 1960-70s, dramatically boosting yields and allowing famine-prone countries to feed their rapidly-expanding populations.

This became known as the Green Revolution and, in 1970, Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his contributions. Borlaug subsequently led CIMMYT wheat research until his retirement in 1979 and served afterwards as a special consultant to the Center.

When a new, highly virulent race of wheat stem rust, Ug99, emerged in eastern Africa in the early 2000s, Borlaug sounded the alarm and championed a global response that grew into the BGRI and associated initiatives such as DGGW.

“This is just a beginning for you, but it doesn’t end here,” said Maricelis Acevedo, a former WIT recipient who went on to become the leader of DGGW. Speaking during the training course, she observed that many WIT awardees come from settings where women often lack access to higher education or the freedom to pursue a career.

“Through WIT activities, including training courses like this and events such as Visitors’ Week and the BGRI workshop,” Acevedo added, “you’ll gain essential knowledge and skills but you’ll also learn leadership and the personal confidence to speak out, as well as the ability to interact one-on-one with leaders in your field and to ask the right questions.”

CIMMYT is the global leader in publicly-funded maize and wheat research and related farming systems. Headquartered near Mexico City, CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, thus improving global food security and reducing poverty. CIMMYT is a member of the CGIAR System and leads the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize and Wheat and the Excellence in Breeding Platform. The Center receives generous support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies.

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) under UK aid, the DGGW project aims to strengthen the delivery pipeline for new, disease resistant, climate-resilient wheat varieties and to increase the yields of smallholder wheat farmers.