Posts Tagged ‘CIMMYT’

Borlaug Fellowship highlights longterm Washington State University-CIMMYT collaboration

The Norman Borlaug International Agricultural Science and Technology Fellowship Program at Washington State University, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, facilitates international collaboration to fight soil borne pathogens

Cereal cyst nematodes

Soil borne pathogens (SBPs) are microorganisms that thrive in the soil and attack cereal crops, notably wheat. They cause high yield losses and reduce grain quality and quantity. SBPs include nematodes, a kind of round worm — including the Heterodera species of cereal cyst nematode and Pratylenchus species of root lesion nematodes — and crown rot caused by the Fusarium species, all of which attack roots of cereal crops.  Drought and monoculture farming exacerbate this damage.

Although chemical, biological and other options can be used to keep pathogen population levels low, the most environmentally friendly and biologically effective method of control is through a resistant crop variety.  However, up to now, only a few resistance genes have been identified against the cereal cyst nematode, Heterodera filipjevi, and this resistance is not yet present in high yielding cultivars.  

For nearly 20 years, research to fight these pathogens has benefited from a productive collaboration between the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Program (CIMMYT) in Turkey and Washington State University (WSU) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) in the United States through a fellowship program named after CIMMYT founder and Green Revolution pioneer Norman Borlaug. CIMMYT wheat breeders in Turkey have been working with breeders in Pullman, Washington to find stronger resistance genes to cereal cyst nematodes identify pathotypes, and other research areas that strengthen both CIMMYT and WSU wheat breeding programs.

CIMMYT pathologist and Turkey Country Representative Abdelfattah Dababat has been working with WSU and USDA-ARS since 2010. Dababat, who joined CIMMYT as a postdoctoral student studying soil borne pathogens (SBPs) in 2009, recently spent two months in Pullman as a Norman Borlaug International Agricultural Science and Technology Fellow, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS). There he was able to share CIMMYT work with members of the WSU Department of Plant Pathology, USDA-ARS, exchange ideas with well-known pathologists, and even travel to Cleveland, Ohio to attend the meeting of the American Phytopathological Society.

“My experience at WSU has been productive and inspiring.” said Dababat. “I have learned from some of the best minds in plant pathology, and worked on SBP issues that plague farmers both in my region and theirs.

“I would like to thank CIMMYT, especially Dr. Hans Braun, for the opportunity to obtain this great fellowship visit to WSU.”

The CIMMYT-WSU relationship was strengthened when the two institutions collaborated on a proposal for an Ethiopian PhD student at the University of Ankara, Turkey to work on SBPs. Through the sponsorship of a Borlaug Leadership Enhancement in Agriculture Program (LEAP) scholarship, Elfinesh Shikur Gebremariam spent four months at WSU in 2013-14 to learn about molecular aspects related to crown rot diseases. She published three peer-reviewed papers in high impact factor journals.

From left to right: Abdelfattah Dababat, Timothy Paulitz and WSU wheat breeding postdoctoral student Nuan Wen during a survey for cereal cyst nematodes in Pullman, Washington

Timothy Paulitz, a research plant pathologist with USDA-ARS and an adjunct professor in WSU’s Department of Plant Pathology has also been an active member in this collaboration, contributing to two master classes on soil borne pathogens in cereals at CIMMYT’s Turkey research station.

“Dr. Paulitz has made tremendous impact in our region,” said Dababat. “He trained more than 50 young scientists who are now in a high scientific and or managerial positions and are contributing not only to their own food security but also to international food security.”

SBP resistance progress and challenges

CIMMYT screens hundreds of wheat germplasm lines each year against SBPs at its research station in Eskisehir, Turkey, in collaboration with the Grain Research Development Corporation of Australia. Using association mapping, CIMMYT researchers have been able to identify new sources of resistance to cereal cyst nematodes, and many new lines have been approved as moderately resistant to resistant compared known varieties.  As a result, hundreds of lines of winter and spring wheat germplasm moderately resistant to SBPs are available.

Cereal cyst nematodes (CCN) are a persistent problem, however. Among the most damaging nematode pests to small grain cereal production, CCN are common from the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia to the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. These nematodes alone are estimated to reduce production of crops by 10% globally.  Breeding for resistance is difficult because breeders must use live nematodes to phenotype, or measure, the lines, and there are few molecular markers linked to the resistance genes against the major CCN species to help identify them.

However, CIMMYT research — involving targeted genetic exploitations, classical selection breeding of resistant genotypes discovery of quantitative trait loci (QTLs) associated with resistance genes, as well as recent genome-wide association studies (GWAS) to associate nematode resistance or susceptibility with particular regions of the genome — has seen some success. One important source for disease-resistance genes is found in wheat’s wild relatives.  So far, 11 resistance genes have been reported. Nine of these were transferred into common wheat from its wild relatives (like Aegilops or goat grass, and other Triticum species) to enhance resistance against the H. avenae species of nematode.

Dababat and Wen in the lab while extracting DNA from wheat lines at the WSU laboratories.

Recently, CIMMYT and the University of Bonn, Germany performed GWAS on 161 winter wheat accessions and identified 11 QTL associated with resistance against the H. filipjevi species of nematode. These QTLs were intercrossed into susceptible winter wheat germplasm and the first generation material (F1) along with the parents were sent to WSU as part of the Borlaug fellowship.  CIMMYT and WSU also conducted several surveys in countries including Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to detect SBPs in cereals.

This joint research will help both institutes to find stronger resistance genes to the cereal cyst nematodes.

The Washington State-based part of Dababat’s Borlaug fellowship is drawing to a close, but the collaboration and relationship between the two institutions remains. In June of next year, Paulitz will visit him in Turkey to follow up on his research progress.

“The international collaboration between CIMMYT and WSU shows how much progress we can make when we work together,” said Dababat. “I look forwarding to continuing our partnership to help farmers around the world find resistance to SBPs.”

Meet Lucia Nevescanin Moreno, first PhD recipient of the HeDWIC fellowship

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT’s) own Lucia Nevescanin Moreno is the first recipient of a new scholarship sponsored by the Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Consortium (HeDWIC) for its doctoral training program.

The HeDWIC Doctoral Training Program evolved out of the MasAgro-Trigo project, thanks to funding from the Mexican Secretariat of Agriculture and Rural Development (SADER) and National Council for Science and Technology (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología, CONACYT). The idea of the initiative is to provide young scientists from climate or food security vulnerable regions with opportunities to conduct research at advanced institutes internationally, to boost heat and drought tolerance of wheat in their home country. The program is expected to expand to other climate vulnerable regions through similar efforts to train talented young scientists who wish to be involved in improving the climate resilience of crops.

Lucia, who is currently working as an assistant research associate with CIMMYT, will be pursuing a PhD on wheat root function under abiotic stress under the supervision of University of Nottingham professor of Plant Sciences Malcom Bennett starting in October.

We asked Lucia a few questions about her research and the importance of heat and drought resilience.

How did you hear about CIMMYT?

A professor from my master’s program told me about it. I was doing a master’s in Natural Resources in the Instituto Tecnologico de Sonora, working specifically on tropical dry forest in Northwest Mexico but I always wanted to do science in a more applied way. I wanted to work on something that could help other people. Food security is something that people need to pay a lot of attention to. I started working for CIMMYT in February 2018 as an assistant research associate in the Global Wheat Program, conducting experiments in different conditions and I really learned a lot and am still learning a lot.

How did you hear about HeDWIC?

I was working with [CIMMYT Remote Sensing Specialist] Francisco Pinto on wheat root research here at CIMMYT and he asked me if I wanted to continue with my studies. I told him that I wanted to do a PhD and he showed me this opportunity with HeDWIC and the University of Nottingham. So I applied and I got it. Actually, I was very surprised to learn that I am the first PhD recipient of the HeDWIC scholarship. It’s a lot of pressure!

What will you be working on?

I will be studying wheat root function under abiotic stress under the supervision of Malcom Bennett at the University of Nottingham. I will be doing field-based phenotyping at Yaqui Valley in Mexico to determine what root characteristics are underlying plant performance under a range of environments including heat stress and water stress conditions. I will be using techniques like x-ray and laser ablation tomography in controlled conditions at the University of Nottingham to measure the physiology and anatomy of the wheat roots. I will also be working with Francisco Pinto and Matthew Reynolds from CIMMYT, Darren Wells and Craig Sturrock from the University of Nottingham and Jonathan Lynch from Penn State University.

Why do you think a consortium like HeDWIC is important for food security?

With climate change occurring at such a rapid pace, we really need to adapt to these new conditions. The population is also growing and so the demand for food needs serious attention. In HeDWIC they are working with external conditions like drought and heat and they are looking at how crops can adapt to these conditions. I think that just looking at how to increase yield is not enough, we need to look at how the crop will respond in the different environmental conditions we will go through.

What advice would you give to young women interested in a career in science?

I think it’s more difficult for women to adapt to this environment of work but we just need to be brave and show that we can do it! I was really interested in working in science because I wanted to know how things work and why. Maybe with my research and with research in general we can help people in power to make important decisions that can help other people. I think that should be the principle purpose of science.

Lucia’s PhD is supported by the CONACYT-Government of Mexico, SADER’s MasAgro Trigo and the University of Nottingham.

Warmer night temperatures reduce wheat yields in Mexico, scientists say

International gathering highlights cutting edge efforts to improve yields, nutrition, and climate change resilience of a globally vital staple food 

by Julie Mollins

A view from the Norman E. Borlaug Experiment Station, Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, Mexico. Photo: M. Ellis/CIMMYT.

As many regions worldwide baked under some of the most persistent heatwaves on record, scientists at a major conference in Canada shared data on the impact of spiraling temperatures on wheat.

In the Sonora desert in northwestern Mexico, nighttime temperatures varied 4.4 degrees Celsius between 1981 and 2018, research from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) shows. Across the world in Siberia, nighttime temperatures rose 2 degrees Celsius between 1988 and 2015, according to Vladimir Shamanin, a professor at Russia’s Omsk State Agrarian University who conducts research with the Kazakhstan-Siberia Network on Spring Wheat Improvement.

“Although field trials across some of the hottest wheat growing environments worldwide have demonstrated that yield losses are in general associated with an increase in average temperatures, minimum temperatures at night – not maximum daytime temperatures –are actually determining the yield loss,” said Gemma Molero, the wheat physiologist at CIMMYT who conducted the research in Sonora, in collaboration with colleague Ivan Ortiz-Monasterio.

“Of the water taken up by the roots, 95% is lost from leaves via transpiration and from this, an average of 12% of the water is lost during the night. One focus of genetic improvement for yield and water-use efficiency for the plant should be to identify traits for adaptation to higher night temperatures,” Molero said, adding that nocturnal transpiration may lead to reductions of up to 50% of available soil moisture in some regions.

Climate challenge

Saskatchewan farmer Brian Rugg in his wheat fields. Photo: Marcia MacNeil/CIMMYT

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in October that temperatures may become an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer in the next 11 years. A new IPCC analysis on climate change and land use due for release this week, urges a shift toward reducing meat in diets to help reduce agriculture-related emissions from livestock. Diets could be built around coarse grains, pulses, nuts and seeds instead.

Scientists attending the International Wheat Congress in Saskatoon, the city at the heart of Canada’s western wheat growing province of Saskatchewan, agreed that a major challenge is to develop more nutritious wheat varieties that can produce bigger yields in hotter temperatures.

As a staple crop, wheat provides 20% of all human calories consumed worldwide. It is the main source of protein for 2.5 billion people in the Global South. Crop system modeler Senthold Asseng, a professor at the University of Florida and a member of the International Wheat Yield Partnership, was involved in an extensive study  in China, India, France, Russia and the United States, which demonstrated that for each degree Celsius in temperature increase, yields decline by 6%, putting food security at risk.

Wheat yields in South Asia could be cut in half due to chronically high temperatures, Molero said. Research conducted by the University of New South Wales, published in Environmental Research Letters also demonstrates that changes in climate accounted for 20 to 49% of yield fluctuations in various crops, including spring wheat. Hot and cold temperature extremes, drought and heavy precipitation accounted for 18 to 4% of the variations.

CIMMYT wheat physiologist Gemma Molero shares her findings with IWC attendees. Photo: Marcia MacNeil/CIMMYT

At CIMMYT, wheat breeders advocate a comprehensive approach that combines conventional, physiological and molecular breeding techniques, as well as good crop management practices that can ameliorate heat shocks. New breeding technologies are making use of wheat landraces and wild grass relatives to add stress adaptive traits into modern wheat – innovative approaches that have led to new heat tolerant varieties being grown by farmers in warmer regions of Pakistan, for example.

Collaborative effort

Matthew Reynolds, a distinguished scientist at CIMMYT, is joint founder of the Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Consortium (HeDWIC), a coalition of hundreds of scientists and stakeholders from over 30 countries.

“HeDWIC is a pre-breeding program that aims to deliver genetically diverse advanced lines through use of shared germplasm and other technologies,” Reynolds said in Saskatoon. “It’s a knowledge-sharing and training mechanism, and a platform to deliver proofs of concept related to new technologies for adapting wheat to a range of heat and drought stress profiles.”

Aims include reaching agreement across borders and institutions on the most promising research areas to achieve climate resilience, arranging trait research into a rational framework, facilitating translational research and developing a bioinformatics cyber-infrastructure, he said, adding that attracting multi-year funding for international collaborations remains a challenge.

Nitrogen traits

Another area of climate research at CIMMYT involves the development of an affordable alternative to the use of nitrogen fertilizers to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. In certain plants, a trait known as biological nitrification inhibition (BNI) allows them to suppress the loss of nitrogen from the soil, improving the efficiency of nitrogen uptake and use by themselves and other plants.

Victor Kommerell, program manager for the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat and Tim Searchinger, senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, answer media questions. Photo: Marcia MacNeil/CIMMYT

Scientists with the BNI research consortium, which includes Japan’s International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS), propose transferring the BNI trait from those plants to critical food and feed crops, such as wheat, sorghum and Brachiaria range grasses.

“Every year, nearly a fifth of the world’s fertilizer is used to grow wheat, yet the crop only uses about 30% of the nitrogen applied, in terms of biomass and harvested grains,” said Victor Kommerell, program manager for the multi-partner CGIAR Research Programs (CRP) on Wheat and Maize led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

“BNI has the potential to turn wheat into a highly nitrogen-efficient crop: farmers could save money on fertilizers, and nitrous oxide emissions from wheat farming could be reduced by 30%.”

Excluding changes in land use such as deforestation, annual greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture each year are equivalent to 11% of all emissions from human activities. About 70% of nitrogen applied to crops in fertilizers is either washed away or becomes nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to Guntur Subbarao, a principal scientist with JIRCAS.

Although ruminant livestock are responsible for generating roughly half of all agricultural production emissions, BNI offers potential for reducing overall emissions, said Tim Searchinger, senior fellow at the World Resources Institute and technical director of a new report titled “Creating a Sustainable Food Future: A Menu of Solutions to Feed Nearly 10 Billion People by 2050.”

To exploit this roots-based characteristic, breeders would have to breed this trait into plants, said Searchinger, who presented key findings of the report in Saskatoon, adding that governments and research agencies should increase research funding.

CGIAR Research Program on Wheat Director Hans Braun (Photo: Marcia MacNeil/CIMMYT)

Other climate change mitigation efforts must include revitalizing degraded soils, which affect about a quarter of the planet’s cropland, to help boost crop yields. Conservation agriculture techniques involve retaining crop residues on fields instead of burning and clearing. Direct seeding into soil-with-residue and agroforestry also can play a key role.

Wheat to beat the heat

Adapted from a blog by Jacques Wery, ICARDA Deputy Director General – Research, originally posted on the International Center for Agriculture in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) website.

Land temperature on June 26, 2019. Map generated using information from the Copernicus Sentinel-3’s Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer

Western Europe is in the midst of an intense heat wave that started at the end of June. The southern French commune of Villevieille recorded a temperature of 45.1 °C, breaking the country’s all-time record. The heat also set new temperature records in Germany and the Czech Republic. Other countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal are also gripped with temperatures much higher than normal.

Scientists have attributed the soaring temperatures to the combination of a storm over the Atlantic Ocean and high pressure over central Europe, which is importing hot air from the Sahara. Though heat waves are not uncommon in Europe, this one was unusually early. Experts say climate change is making heat waves more common (Global warming of 1.5 °C IPCC Special Report).

Apart from human health, the heat wave is already causing significant damage in agriculture. Major wheat growers experienced temperatures of 40 °C and higher. This is of great concern, as the heat wave occurred during the crop’s critical growth stages. Wheat is a cool season crop with an optimal daytime growing temperature of 15 °C during the critical reproductive stage. Wheat plants exposed to high temperatures around the period of flowering lose fertility due to pollen dehydration, resulting in less grain formed. It is calculated that for every degree above the optimum 15 °C, wheat experiences a yield reduction of three to four percent.

If a heat wave like such as this one had occurred one month earlier, at the end of May, when Northern European wheat is in full bloom, it could have caused up to 50 percent yield loses, a devastating blow to the European agriculture and food sectors costing billions of Euros.

The response of scientists

Breeding heat tolerant wheat varieties remains one of the most strategic approaches to cope with the risk of unseasonal heat waves. The International Center for Agricultural research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) started in 2012 to use field stations that experience continuous heat-stress to select new wheat cultivars better primed to tolerate this stress.

In Sudan, the experimental farm of Wad Medani was developed together with the Agricultural Research Corporation (ARC) and CIMMYT (International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement), to test thousands of wheat candidate varieties each year. This station experiences average maximum daily temperatures above 30 °C throughout the growing season, which is less than 100 days long, from planting to harvest. This test was used to identify critical genes controlling heat-tolerant in common wheat, and to release new cultivars of bread wheat and durum wheat capable of withstanding severe heat.

The ICARDA-ISRA durum variety Haby
Senegalese female cooperative growing the ICARDA-ISRA durum variety Haby at above 32 C throughout the season.

Similarly, two heat-stress experimental farms were developed in West Africa to test durum wheat germplasm. In collaboration with Prof Rodomiro Ortiz  of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) Department of Plant Breeding, the stations of Kaédi in Mauritania and Fanaye in Senegal were upgraded in partnership with the Centre National de Recherche Agronomique et de Développement Agricole (CNRADA) and the Institut Sénégalais de Recherche Agricole (ISRA).

Field testing conducted at these stations – with daily temperatures above 32 °C throughout the cycle and a season of only 90 days – have revealed four new durum wheat cultivars perfectly adapted to tolerate intense heat. The work conducted in West Africa has even resulted in the awarding of the prestigious OLAM Prize for Innovation in Food Security to the team of researchers involved.

To convert this success into cultivars that could be grown, heat tolerance must be combined with the ability to cope with drought stress. An experiment was devised at the Marchouch station in Morocco, where plastic tunnels were placed on the wheat plants at the time of flowering to raise temperatures to above 40 °C and simultaneously prevent any rainfall from reaching the plants.

Plastic tunnels at the ICARDA Marchouch station in Morocco
Plastic tunnels were placed on the wheat plants at the time of flowering at the ICARDA Marchouch station in Morocco

When all other tested varieties lost more than 50 percent yield to the two combined stresses, the ICARDA-INRA (Institut Nationale de la Recherche Agronomique in Morocco) cultivar Faraj lost only 25 percent, a major positive result considering the severity of the stresses tested. Along the same principles, more than 60 wheat varieties of ICARDA origin have been released by national breeding programs in Central and West Asia and North Africa regions and sub- Saharan Africa regions in the last five years alone, thanks to the ability of the germplasm to adapt to some of the most severe wheat stresses occurring around the world.

Can Europe take advantage of success stories?

In the USA and Canada, farmers grow mostly wheat varieties developed and commercialized by public wheat breeding programs. These cultivars have been very popular and public sector wheat-breeding activities are vital to the industry.

In Australia, wheat breeding is conducted by the private sector. However, public researchers are spending the same amount of money on pre-breeding as they did 10 years ago on breeding and variety development together. To take advantage of some of the success stories of ICARDA and CIMMYT, the Australian wheat breeding programs established 10 years ago the CIMMYT-Australia-ICARDA Germplasm Evaluation project (CAIGE). Each year, Australian breeders visit the trials of ICARDA in Morocco and CIMMYT in Mexico. They select the top high yielding wheat genotypes that combine drought and heat tolerance, with other useful traits. These are then imported and tested across Australian sites to confirm the best one for commercialization or use in hybridization programs.

Dr Allan Rattey
Allan Rattey, national early generation wheat breeder with Intergrain/Australia, toured Morocco in April 2019 to witness the performances of ICARDA germplasm in a season that received less than 200 mm of total moisture, equivalent to what most regions of Northern Europe receive in the month of December alone, and with temperatures during flowering regularly exceeding 26 °C.  Dr. Rattey had a chance to select a range of novel genetic material in the form of promising ICARDA lines tested next to popular Australian varieties. 

In Europe, the situation is more like Australia, and public researchers do not work directly on the commercialization and development of varieties, which is left to the private companies. Instead, public research focuses on pre-breeding to develop new breeding techniques and on high-risk, longer-term targets, thereby supporting the private sector and farmers with high-tech innovations.

CGIAR centers such as ICARDA and CIMMYT have worked in close collaboration with European universities and advanced research institutions for a long time to develop and adapt the most novel technologies for pre-breeding. It might also be advantageous for European private sector companies to start taking advantage of CGIAR stress-tolerant wheat varieties and develop a system similar to CAIGE used by Australian breeders. By taking advantage of similar environments in Morocco and  Mediterranean environments in Europe, European breeders can select promising germplasm of tomorrow and provide the continent’s agricultural sector with a practical defense against future heat waves.

Rebuttal letter sets the record straight on crop breeding for climate change resilience

Crop scientists refute the flawed findings of a study questioning climate resilience in modern wheat breeding.

This article by Marcia MacNeil was originally posted on May 28, 2019 on cimmyt.org.

CIMMYT field workers working on wheat crossing as part of the breeding process. (Photo: CIMMYT)

In early 2019, an article published by European climate researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) journal questioned the climate resilience of modern wheat varieties. The article suggested that modern wheat varieties showed reduced climate resilience as a direct result of modern breeding methods and practices, a claim that researchers at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) vehemently rebuke

In a rebuttal letter published in the June issue of PNAS a group of scientists, including CIMMYT’s Susanne Dreisigacker and Sarah Hearne, strongly contradict the finding that breeding has reduced climate resilience in European wheat, citing significant flaws in the authors’ methodology, data analyses and interpretation.

“This article discredits European plant breeders and wheat breeders in general, who have been working over many decades to produce a wide range of regionally adapted, stable varieties which perform well under a broad range of climate change conditions,” said CIMMYT wheat molecular geneticist Susanne Dreisigacker.

Among other flaws, they found a number of omissions and inconsistencies.

  • The article shows a lack of understanding of commonly used terms and principles of breeding theory, criticizing newer wheat varieties for demonstrating a decrease in “climatic response diversity.” Less diversity in wheat response — that is, more stable yields despite the influence of climate change — is a benefit, not a threat, to farmers.
  • The article authors contradict the common knowledge among farmers and plant breeders that new elite wheat varieties are generally more productive than older varieties; new cultivars are only approved if they show added value in direct comparison to existing varieties.
  • The article’s claim of long-term losses of climate resilience in “European wheat” is unsubstantiated. The authors extensively used data from three small countries — the Czech Republic, Denmark and Slovakia — which contribute less than five percent of Europe’s wheat supply. Three of the five most important wheat producers in Europe — Russia, Ukraine and the United Kingdom — were not accounted for in the analysis.
  • The authors failed to report the actual wheat yields in their study, neglected to publish the underlying data with the manuscript and have up to now declined requests to make the data available.

Europe is one of the world’s major wheat producers and threats to its wheat production due to climate change would have serious consequences for world’s food security. Luckily, say the scientists who published the rebuttal letter, this fear is unfounded.

“Wheat producers and bread consumers around the world will be relieved to learn that breeders have not ignored climate change after all,” said letter lead-author Rod Snowdon, from the Department of Plant Breeding at Justus Liebig University of Giessen, Germany.

The full rebuttal letter by 19 international plant breeders, agronomists and scientists, is available on the PNAS site and reprinted in its entirety below.

Reduced response diversity does not negatively impact wheat climate resilience

Kahiluoto et al. (1) assert that climate resilience in European wheat has declined due to current breeding practices. To support this alarming claim, the authors report yield variance data indicating increasingly homogeneous responses to climatic fluctuations in modern wheat cultivars. They evaluated “response diversity,” a measure of responses to environmental change among different species jointly contributing to ecosystem functions (2). We question the suitability of this measure to describe agronomic fitness in single-cultivar wheat cropping systems. Conclusions are made about “long-term trends,” which in fact span data from barely a decade, corresponding to the duration of a single wheat breeding cycle. The authors furthermore acknowledge increasing climate variability during the study period, confounding their analysis of climate response in the same time span.

The underlying data are not published with the manuscript. Thus, the assertion that there is “no inherent trade-off between yield potential and diversity in weather responses” (1) cannot be verified. Inexplicably, the analysis and conclusions ignore absolute yields, which increase over time through breeding (3–6). Furthermore, incompatible data from completely different ecogeographical forms and species of wheat are apparently considered together, and the dataset is strongly biased toward a few small countries with minimal wheat production and narrow agroclimatic gradients.

The study assumes that increased response diversity among different cultivars is associated with yield stability. In contrast, the common, agronomic definition of yield stability refers to the ability of a single cultivar to stably perform well in diverse environments, without excessive responses to fluctuating conditions. Response diversity measures that ignore absolute yield do not support statements about food security or financial returns to farmers.

Cultivar yield potential, stability, and adaptation are enhanced by multienvironment selection over long breeding time frames, encompassing climate fluctuations and a multitude of other relevant environmental variables. Translation to on-farm productivity is promoted by national registration trials and extensive, postregistration regional variety trials in diverse environments. The unsurprising conclusion that planting multiple cultivars enhances overall production stability mirrors longstanding farming recommendations and practice (7). The availability of robust performance data from a broad range of high-performing cultivars enables European farmers to manage their production and income risks.

Kahiluoto et al. (1) speculate about “genetic erosion” of modern cultivars due to a “lack of incentives for breeders to introduce divergent material.” To substantiate these claims, the authors cite inadequate genetic data from non-European durum wheat (8), while explicitly dismissing clearly opposing findings about genetic diversity in European bread wheat (9). Short-term reductions in response diversity in five countries were misleadingly reported as a “long-term decline” in climate resilience in “most European countries,” although six out of seven countries with sufficient data showed no long-term decline. The article from Kahiluoto et al. and the misrepresentation of its results distorts decades of rigorous, successful breeding for yield potential and stability in European wheat and misleads farmers with pronouncements that are not supported by relevant data.

References:

1 H. Kahiluoto et al., Decline in climate resilience of European wheat. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 116, 123–128 (2019).

2 T. Elmqvist et al., Response diversity, ecosystem change, and resilience. Front. Ecol. Environ. 1, 488–494 (2003).

3 S. De Schepper, M. De Loose, E. Van Bockstaele, P. Debergh, Ploidy analysis of azalea flower colour sports. Meded. Rijksuniv. Gent. Fak. Landbouwkd. Toegep. Biol. Wet. 66, 447–449 (2001).

4 I. Mackay et al., Reanalyses of the historical series of UK variety trials to quantify the contributions of genetic and environmental factors to trends and variability in yield over time. Theor. Appl. Genet. 122, 225–238 (2011).

5 F. Laidig et al., Breeding progress, environmental variation and correlation of winter wheat yield and quality traits in German official variety trials and on-farm during 1983-2014. Theor. Appl. Genet. 130, 223–245 (2017).

6 T. Würschum, W. L. Leiser, S. M. Langer, M. R. Tucker, C. F. H. Longin, Phenotypic and genetic analysis of spike and kernel characteristics in wheat reveals long-term genetic trends of grain yield components. Theor. Appl. Genet. 131, 2071–2084 (2018).

7 P. Annicchiarico, “Genotype x environment interactions: Challenges and opportunities for plant breeding and cultivar recommendations.” (Food and Agriculture 201 Organisation of the United Nations, Rome, Italy, 2002), FAO Plant Production and Protection Paper 174.

8 F. Henkrar et al., Genetic diversity reduction in improved durum wheat cultivars of Morocco as revealed by microsatellite markers. Sci. Agric. 73, 134–141 (2016).

9 M. van de Wouw, T. van Hintum, C. Kik, R. van Treuren, B. Visser, Genetic diversity trends in twentieth century crop cultivars: A meta analysis. Theor. Appl. Genet. 120, 1241–1252 (2010).

Q&A with 2019 WIT awardee Carolina Rivera

Carolina Rivera shakes the hand of Maricelis Acevedo, Associate Director for Science for Cornell University’s Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat Project and WIT mentor, after the announcement of the WIT award winners.

As a native of Obregon, Mexico, Carolina Rivera has a unique connection to the heart of Norman Borlaug’s wheat fields. She is now carrying on Borlaug’s legacy and working with wheat as a wheat physiologist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and data coordinator with the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP).

Given her talents and passion for wheat research, it is no surprise that Rivera is among this year’s six recipients of the 2019 Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum (WIT) Early Career Award. As a young scientist at CIMMYT, she has already worked to identify new traits associated with the optimization of plant morphology aiming to boost grain number and yield.

The Jeanie Borlaug Laube WIT Award provides professional development opportunities for women working in wheat. The review panel responsible for the selection of the candidates at the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI), was impressed by her commitment towards wheat research on an international level and her potential to mentor future women scientists.

Established in 2010, the award is named after Jeanie Borlaug Laube, wheat science advocate and mentor, and daughter of Nobel Laureate Dr. Norman E. Borlaug. As a winner, Rivera is invited to attend a training course at CIMMYT in Obregon, Mexico, in spring 2020 as well as the BGRI 2020 Technical Workshop, to be held in the UK in June 2020. Since the award’s founding, there are now 50 WIT award winners.

The 2019 winners were announced on March 20 during CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program Visitors’ Week in Obregon.

In the following interview, Rivera shares her thoughts about the relevance of the award and her career as a woman in wheat science.

Q: What does receiving the Jeanie Borlaug Laube WIT Award mean to you?

I feel very honored that I was considered for the WIT award, especially after having read the inspiring biographies of former WIT awardees. Receiving this award has encouraged me even more to continue doing what I love while standing strong as a woman in science.

It will is a great honor to receive the award named for Jeanie Borlaug, who is a very active advocate for wheat research. I am also very excited to attend the BGRI Technical Workshop next year, where lead breeders and scientists will update the global wheat community on wheat rust research. I expect to see a good amount of women at the meeting!

Q: When did you first become interested in agriculture?

My first real encounter with agriculture was in 2009 when I joined CIMMYT Obregon as an undergraduate student intern. I am originally from Obregon, so I remember knowing about the presence of CIMMYT, Campo Experimental Norman E. Borlaug (CENEB) and Instituto Nacional de Investigación Forestales Agrícolas y Pecuario (Inifap) in my city but not really understanding the real importance and impact of the research coming from those institutions. After a few months working at CIMMYT, I became very engrossed in my work and visualized myself as a wheat scientist.

Q: Why is it important to you that there is a strong community of women in agriculture?

We know women play a very important role in agriculture in rural communities, but in most cases they do not get the same rights and recognition as men. Therefore, policies — such as land rights — need to be changed and both women and men need to be educated in gender equity. I think the latter factor is more likely to strengthen communities of women, both new and existing, working in agriculture.

In addition, women should participate more in science to show that agricultural research is an area where various ideas and perspectives are necessary. To achieve this in the long run, policies need to look at current social and cultural practices holding back the advancement of women in their careers.

Q: What are you currently working on with CIMMYT and IWYP?

I am a post-doctoral fellow in CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program where I assist in collaborative projects to improve wheat yield potential funded by IWYP. I am also leading the implementation of IWYP’s international research database, helping to develop CIMMYT’s wheat databases in collaboration with the center’s Genetic Resources Program. Apart from research and data management, I am passionate about offering trainings to students and visitors on field phenotyping approaches.

Q: Where do you see yourself in the agriculture world in 10 years?

In 10 years, I see myself as an independent scientist, generating ideas that contribute to delivering wheat varieties with higher yield potential and better tolerance to heat and drought stresses. I also see myself establishing strategies to streamline capacity building for graduate students in Mexico. At that point, I would also like to be contributing to policy changes in education and funding for science in Mexico.

Reigning in the blast epidemic

Dr. J.M.C. Fernandes from Brazil explaining the working of spore trap to trainees

To build resilience against the threat of wheat blast, training sessions were held in Bangladesh to increase the reach of research findings and possible solutions as well as to educate the stakeholders involved. Since 2017, hands-on training on disease screening and surveillance of wheat blast have been organized every year in Bangladesh, with participation of national and international scientists. The third of its kind was jointly organized by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Wheat and Maize Research Institute (BWMRI), and the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) Bangladesh during 19-28 February, 2019 at Regional Agricultural Research Station, Jashore with financial support from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the Krishi Gobeshona Foundation (KGF) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The objective of the training was to learn the basic techniques of pathogen identification and its culturing, field inoculation and disease scoring and share experiences regarding combating the disease and its progress among the participants from home and abroad. Thirty five wheat scientists from China, India and Nepal as well as from BWMRI, DAE and CIMMYT in Bangladesh participated in the training.

The training was inaugurated by Kamala Ranjan Das, Additional Secretary (Research), Ministry of Agriculture, Bangladesh. The Director General of BWMRI, Dr. Naresh C. D. Barma was the Chair and Dr. T. P. Tiwari, Country Representative, CIMMYT Bangladesh and Additional Director of Jashore region of DAE were the special guests in the inaugural session. In addition to Bangladeshi experts, Dr. José Maurício C. Fernandes from Brazil, Dr. Pawan K. Singh from CIMMYT, Mexico and Dr. Timothy J. Krupnik from CIMMYT, Bangladesh presented the updates on the techniques for mitigating the disease. Dr. M. Akhteruzzaman, Deputy Director of DAE, Meherpur, who has been working very closely with wheat blast research and extension, spoke on the history and present status of wheat blast in Bangladesh. It was a unique opportunity for the trainees to listen from grass root level experience based on the real situation in the farmers’ fields.

Group photo of trainees at the precision phenotypic platform (PPP) for wheat blast at Regional Agricultural Research Station, Jashore, Bangladesh.

Wheat is especially susceptible to blast infection during warm and humid weather conditions. While the fungus infects all above ground parts of the crop, infection in spikes is most critical and responsible for yield loss. Hence, to determine whether blast is endemic to the specific region and also to assess the epidemic potential in unaffected regions, Dr. Fernandes developed a wheat blast forecasting model with support from CIMMYT Bangladesh. To collect data on the presence of wheat blast spores in the air, CIMMYT, in collaboration with BWMRI, installed four spore traps in four different wheat fields in Meherpur, Faridpur, Rajshahi and Dinajpur districts of Bangladesh. The results from these spore traps and weather parameters will help validate the wheat blast forecasting model. After final validation, the recommendation message will be sent to farmers and DAE personnel through mobile app. This will help farmers decide the perfect time for spraying fungicide to control blast effectively.

During the training participants received the hands-on experience of activities in the precision phenotypic platform (PPP) for wheat blast, where 4500 germplasm from different countries of the world and CIMMYT Mexico are being tested under artificial inoculated conditions. To keep the environment sufficiently humid, the trial is kept under mist irrigation to facilitate proper disease development. Trainees learned identification of leaf and spike symptoms of wheat blast, identification and isolation of conidia under microscope, inoculum preparation, tagging selected plants in the fields for inoculation, field inoculation of germplasms being tested at the PPP and more.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), wheat consumption in Bangladesh is 7.7 million tons as of 2018 while only 1.25 million tons are supplied domestically. Since the majority of wheat is imported, it will adversely affect the economy if the comparatively smaller amount the country produces decreases due to blast. So the impact of wheat blast is not limited to food production but affects the economy as a whole, and steps to help mitigate the disease are crucial in ensuring healthy growth of wheat yield.

Wheat blast, caused by Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype Triticum (MoT), was first discovered in Brazil in 1985 and then surprisingly appeared in the wheat fields of Bangladesh in 2016, causing 25-30% yield loss in 15,000 ha. As an immediate response to this crisis, CIMMYT and the government of Bangladesh have worked together to mitigate the disease, most notably by distributing factsheets to farmers, conducting routine follow-ups followed by the development and rapid release of blast resistant wheat variety BARI Gom 33 and tolerant varieties (BARI Gom 30 and 32) and strengthening research on blast.


The Benefits of U.S. Investment in Global Wheat Research Collaboration

This article by Elizabeth Westendorf, Assistant Director of Policy at U.S. Wheat Associates, was originally posted on USWheat.org 

Photo: U.S. Wheat Associates

Seventy-five years ago, the seeds of the Green Revolution were planted when Norman Borlaug began his work on wheat breeding in Mexico. The success of that effort, which was a partnership between the Mexican government and the Rockefeller Foundation, led to the eventual founding of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

In 1971, CGIAR was established as an umbrella organization to create an international consortium of research centers. CIMMYT was one of the first research centers supported through the CGIAR, which today includes 15 centers around the world with a local presence in 70 countries. Each center focuses on unique challenges, but they are all driven by three broad strategic goals: to reduce poverty; to improve food and nutrition security; and to improve natural resources and ecosystem services.

For 50 years, wheat has been one of the core crops of CGIAR’s focus. CGIAR receives annual funding of about $30 million for wheat, and the economic benefits of that wheat breeding research range from $2.2 to $3.1 billion. This is a benefit-cost ratio of at least 73 to 1 — for every $1 spent in CGIAR wheat research funding, there is more than $73 in economic benefits to global wheat farmers. CIMMYT’s international wheat improvement programs generate $500 million per year in economic benefits. Globally, nearly half of the wheat varieties planted are CGIAR-related; in South, Central and West Asia and North Africa, that number rises to 70 to 80 percent of wheat varieties. When wheat supplies 20 percent of protein and calories in diets worldwide, CGIAR wheat research can have a major impact on the livelihoods of the world’s most poor people.

CGIAR Research Centers have also led to significant benefits for U.S. farmers as well. Approximately 60 percent of the wheat acreage planted in the U.S. uses CGIAR-related wheat varieties. CIMMYT wheat improvement spillovers in the United States repay the total U.S. contribution to CIMMYT’s wheat improvement research budget by a rate of up to 40 to 1. Another partner, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), has delivered innovations that protect U.S. farmers from crop losses due to destructive pests, and has also partnered with CIMMYT to develop the One Global Wheat Program under CGIAR.

One aspect of the CGIAR success story in the United States is about partnership. Public U.S. universities around the country have partnered with CGIAR on agricultural research, to the benefit of U.S. farmers and farmers worldwide. This partnership allows for knowledge transfer and idea-sharing on a global scale. USW is proud that many of our member states have universities that have partnered with CGIAR on wheat projects.

The news is not all good, however. As we anticipate world population growing to 10 billion in 2050, the demand for wheat is expected to increase by 50 percent. To meet that demand, wheat yields must increase by 1.6 percent annually. Currently they are increasing by less than 1 percent annually. There is plenty of work to do to continue Borlaug’s mission of achieving food security. CGIAR Research Centers will continue to play a critical role in that effort.

The United States’ investment in CGIAR Research Programs makes a vital contribution to agricultural improvements and fosters partnerships with U.S. public research universities, international research centers, private sector partnerships and others. Partnerships with CGIAR make it possible to do the win-win collaborative wheat research that helps meet global food needs, brings tremendous economic benefits to U.S. agriculture and leverages U.S. research dollars.

We invite our stakeholders and overseas customers to learn more about this important partnership and the benefits of CGIAR wheat research in part through a fact sheet posted here on the USW website.

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.