Posts Tagged ‘zinc’

Q&A: Wheat breeding experts help CIMMYT reach ambitious improvement goals

“This will make us one of the world’s best breeding programs,” says visiting scientist

Wheat seeds shoot out of harvester at CIMMYT’s Centro Experimental Norman E. Borlaug in Obregon, Mexico. Photo: Peter Lowe/CIMMYT

A select group of plant breeders, quantitative geneticists, pathologists, statisticians, mathematicians, and other scientific and technical experts from the public and private wheat breeding sectors spent three days at the headquarters of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) last week debating ways to improve CIMMYT’s wheat breeding program.

The group, who traveled from as far as away as Canada, India and China, challenged each other to come up with a set of recommendations to move CIMMYT’s wheat breeding program to two ambitious goals: to increase the rate of genetic gain in wheat yields and to mainstream high zinc levels into all new improved wheat lines.

We caught up with a few of these visiting scientists to understand why they came and how they saw their role in this renewed push for food security through wheat research.

Gary Atlin, Senior Program Officer, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Q: There is a sense of urgency in this meeting. Why is it important to raise genetic gain – and nutrition — in wheat now?

A: The urgency is generally around increasing the effectiveness of breeding in the face of climate change and intensifying cropping systems in the target countries that we serve.  There is also an increasing recognition that micronutrient deficiencies are a major health problem in many areas where a lot of protein and calories come from wheat.

Donors are looking at breeding investments and realizing that although programs like CIMMYT are extremely effective they could probably be more efficient and effective.

It’s an ambitious goal: to increase the rate of genetic gain — and move the needle on zinc — within the context of an agronomic breeding program that’s already very effective. This will make us one of the world’s best breeding programs.

Q: Do we have what it takes?

A: Absolutely. The engine already works very well. But there are lots of new tools, new ways of organizing breeding being tried out in the public and private sectors that we can use. CIMMYT has an excellent skill set here and very experienced people. It’s all there — but it’s a complex problem.

Q: How do you see the role of wheat research in the move to transform the many CGIAR centers into OneCGIAR?

A: Well, along with rice, wheat is among the top two in terms of area and contribution to total calories worldwide. So OneCGIAR will have a wheat research program as the core of its wheat offering. One CGIAR will hopefully do away with dysfunctional separations and boundaries between programs so it should be easier and we won’t have to duplicate programmatic leadership and administrative structures.

Wheat will be just as important. The idea of OneCGIAR is to provide a better platform for the research programs. I’m very optimistic that it’s going to help.

Valentin Wimmer, Head of Cereals Breeding Technologies, KWS SAAT SE & Co. KGaA, Germany

Q: Why did you decide to come help CIMMYT’s wheat breeding program?

A: I would have regretted it if I hadn’t come. The exchange, the process of disclosing a program, having an in-depth discussion and coming up with a proposal  — that is something that rarely happens.

I was also interested because I thought I could also learn. There are many other smart people here. It’s a give and take.

Q: What is your reaction to CIMMYT’s wheat breeding plan? Do you think we can do it?

A: I think it’s very ambitious but I was positively surprised by the output.  Given the limited amount of time, we really made good progress.

Q: How do you see your role in this consultation and in the future with this effort?

A:  My background is in breeding technologies, statistical modeling and simulation and breeding scheme modeling—all areas of discussion here.  I also have expertise in a corporate environment – so I can provide input on logistics and time constraints.

 I will be available to offer additional feedback and answer questions – or if the program wants to send someone to us for training- I could imagine that, too.

Curtis Pozniak, Professor and Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Research Program Chair in Durum and High-Yield Wheat Breeding and Genetics, University of Saskatchewan, Canada

Q: How has your experience been at this workshop?

A:  I work closely with the CIMMYT wheat breeders in exchanging germplasm, particularly on the durum wheat side.  To be able to visit CIMMYT and help move the program forward was quite an honor for me, particularly given the excellent relationships I’ve had with CIMMYT scientists. It’s been a fantastic experience.

Q: How do you see your role as a research partner and your involvement as this effort moves forward?

A: It’s clear that CIMMYT has extensive breeding capability capacity, structure, people, and know-how. They’re doing an excellent job. Our role at this workshop is to review how decisions are made and think about how CIMMYT wheat programs  apply new technologies to improve the rate of genetic gain in wheat. It is nice to see that the program is starting to embrace a data driven selection system.

One of the things we were talking about here is the importance of germplasm exchange, and how to fit that into not only the CIMMYT program but the international programs both in developed and developing countries.   I use CIMMYT germplasm in my own crossing program, and we exchange genetic mapping populations and genotypic information amongst our programs to make better sense of the data in the context of our own germplasm, relative to our specific environments. I am happy to give back.

Kudos to CIMMYT for reaching out and really doing an excellent job presenting their program and asking a whole range of experts to provide feedback on their wheat program and listen to our collective experiences on how we might improve not only the breeding program at CIMMYT, but national programs as well.  I don’t see this as a “one-off” but the first step to building a much stronger relationship, and something that will continue.

 “Change can be painful and can take us out of our comfort zone,” said CIMMYT Director of Genetic Resources Kevin Pixley, who co-moderated the workshop, “but a constant pursuit of improvement is what differentiates exceptional from good, and the challenges facing wheat farmers in coming decades will require the best that science can offer.”

Wrapping up the technical expert meeting, Gary Atlin put these efforts into perspective. “Genetic gains mean income for farmers,” he reminded the group. “That’s what drives me, and I know that’s what drives you too.”


Smallholder wheat production can cut Africa’s costly grain imports

This blog by Mike Listman was originally posted on CIMMYT.org.

International scientists are working with regional and national partners in sub-Saharan Africa to catalyze local wheat farming and help meet the rapidly rising regional demand for this crop.

The specialists are focusing on smallholder farmers in Rwanda and Zambia, offering them technical and institutional support, better links to markets, and the sharing of successful practices across regions and borders, as part of the project “Enhancing smallholder wheat productivity through sustainable intensification of wheat-based farming systems in Rwanda and Zambia.”

“Work started in 2016 and has included varietal selection, seed multiplication, and sharing of high-yielding, locally adapted, disease-resistant wheat varieties,” said Moti Jaleta, a socioeconomist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) who leads the project. “Our knowledge and successes in smallholder wheat production and marketing will also be applicable in Madagascar, Mozambique, and Tanzania.”

Harvesting wheat at Gataraga, Northern Province, Rwanda.

Maize is by far the number-one food crop in sub-Saharan Africa but wheat consumption is increasing fast, driven in part by rapid urbanization and life-style changes. The region annually imports more than 15 million tons of wheat grain, worth some US$ 3.6 billion at current prices. Only Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa grow significant amounts of wheat and they are still net importers of the grain.

“Growing more wheat where it makes sense to do so can help safeguard food security for people who prefer wheat and reduce dependence on risky wheat grain markets,” Jaleta explained. “We’re working in areas where there’s biophysical potential for the crop in rain-fed farming, to increase domestic wheat production and productivity through use of improved varieties and cropping practices.”

In addition to the above, participants are supporting the region’s wheat production in diverse ways:

  • Recommendations to fine-tune smallholder wheat value chains and better serve diverse farmers.
  • Testing of yield-enhancing farming practices, such as bed-and-furrow systems that facilitate efficient sowing and better weed control.
  • Testing and promotion of small-scale mechanization, such as power tillers, to save labor and improve sowing and crop establishment.
  • Exploring use of hand-held light sensors to precisely calibrate nitrogen fertilizer dosages throughout the cropping season.

Innocent Habarurema, wheat breeder in the Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board (RAB), cited recent successes in the release of improved, disease resistant wheat varieties, as well as engaging smallholder farmers in seed multiplication and marketing to improve their access to quality seed of those varieties.

“The main challenge in wheat production is the short window of time between wheat seasons, which doesn’t allow complete drying of harvested plants for proper threshing, Habarurema explained. “Suitable machinery to dry and thresh the wheat would remove the drudgery of hand threshing and improve the quality of the grain, so that it fetches better prices in markets.”

Millers, like this one in Rwanda, play a key role in wheat value chains.

Critical wheat diseases in Zambia include spot blotch, a leaf disease caused by the fungus Cochliobolus sativus, and head blight caused by Fusarium spp., which can leave carcinogenic toxins in the grain, according to Batiseba Tembo, wheat breeder at the Zambian Agricultural Research Institute (ZARI).

“Developing and disseminating varieties resistant to these diseases is a priority in the wheat breeding program at Mt. Makulu Agricultural Research Center,” said Tembo. “We’re also promoting appropriate mechanization for smallholder farmers, to improve wheat production and reduce the enormous drudgery of preparing the soil with hand hoes.”

Participants in the project, which runs to 2020, met at Musanze, in Rwanda’s Northern Province, during February 5-7 to review progress and plan remaining activities, which include more widespread sharing of seed, improved practices, and other useful outcomes.

“There was interest in trying smallholder winter wheat production under irrigation in Zambia to reduce the disease effects normally experienced in rainfed cropping,” said Jaleta, adding that the costs and benefits of irrigation, which is rarely used in the region, need to be assessed.

Project participants may also include in selection trials wheat varieties that have been bred to contain enhanced grain levels of zinc, a key micronutrient missing in the diets of many rural Africa households.

“The project will also push for the fast-track release and seed multiplication of the best varieties, to get them into farmers’ hands as quickly as possible,” Jaleta said.

In addition to CIMMYT, RAB, and ZARI, implementing partners include the Center for Coordination of Agricultural Research and Development for Southern Africa (CCARDESA). Generous funding for the work comes from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat.

Researchers find “hotspot” regions in the wheat genome for high zinc content

The reported work by wheat scientists paves the way for expanded use of wild grass species, such as Aegilops tauschii (also known as goat grass; pictured here) as sources of new genes for higher grain zinc in wheat. (Photo: CIMMYT)

An international team of scientists applied genome-wide association analysis for the first time to study the genetics that underlie grain zinc concentrations in wheat, according to a report published in Nature Scientific Reports on 10 September.

Analyzing zinc concentrations in the grain of 330 bread wheat lines across diverse environments in India and Mexico, the researchers uncovered 39 new molecular markers associated with the trait, as well as 2 wheat genome segments that carry important genes for zinc uptake, translocation, and storage in wheat.

The findings promise greatly to ease development of wheat varieties with enhanced levels of zinc, a critical micronutrient lacking in the diets of many poor who depend on wheat-based food, according to Velu Govindan, wheat breeder at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and first author of the new report.

“A collaboration among research centers in India, Australia, the USA and Mexico, this work will expedite breeding for higher zinc through use of ‘hotspot’ genome regions and molecular markers,” said Govindan. “It also advances efforts to make selection for grain zinc a standard feature of CIMMYT wheat breeding. Because varieties derived from CIMMYT breeding are grown on nearly half the world’s wheat lands, ‘mainstreaming’ high zinc in breeding programs could improve the micronutrient nutrition of millions.”

More than 17 percent of humans, largely across Asia and Africa, lack zinc in their diets, a factor responsible for the deaths of more than 400,000 young children each year.

Often used in human disease research, the genome-wide association approach was applied in this study to zero in on genome segments — known as quantitative trait loci (QTLs) — that carry genes of interest for wheat grain zinc content, according to Govindan.

“The advantages of the genome-wide association method over traditional QTL mapping include better coverage of alleles and the ability to include landraces, elite cultivars, and advanced breeding lines in the analysis,” he explained. “Our study fully opens the door for the expanded use of wheat progenitor species as sources of alleles for high grain zinc, and the outcomes helped us to identify other candidate genes from wheat, barley, Brachypodium grasses, and rice.”
Farmers in South Asia are growing six zinc-enhanced wheat varieties developed using CIMMYT breeding lines and released in recent years according to Ravi Singh, head of the CIMMYT Bread Wheat Improvement Program.

Financial support for this study was provided by HarvestPlus (www.HarvestPlus.org), a global alliance of agriculture and nutrition research institutions working to increase the micronutrient density of staple food crops through biofortification. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of HarvestPlus. It was also supported by CGIAR Funders, through the Research Program on Wheat and the Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health. Research partners in India and Pakistan greatly contributed to this study by conducting high-quality field trials.

Moving zinc-enriched wheat into the mainstream

By Matthew O’Leary/CIMMYT

EL BATAN, Mexico (May 30,2017)– In an effort to stamp out hidden hunger, scientists are calling for support to make zinc-biofortification a core trait in the world’s largest wheat breeding program.

At least 2 billion people around the world suffer from micronutrient deficiency, or hidden hunger, which is characterized by iron-deficiency anemia, vitamin A and zinc deficiency.

Zinc deficiency remains a crucial health issue in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. As a key nutrient in red meat, zinc deficiency is prevalent in areas of high cereal and low animal food consumption.