Hi-tech breeding sets up crop ‘pillars’

Global genebank material critical for continual crop improvements


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CIMMYT director-general Professor Martin Kropff.  PHOTO Alistair Lawson

CIMMYT director-general Professor Martin Kropff. PHOTO Alistair Lawson

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World's crop scientists collaborate to solve widespread nutrition and obesity issues.

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The conservation and use of genetic material housed in genebanks around the world will be critical in ensuring continual crop improvement into the future, says director-general of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) Professor Martin Kropff.

For Professor Kropff, such ‘crop improvement’ also covers human consumption issues as wide ranging as malnutrition and hunger to first-world obesity.

He says that through Seeds of Discovery (SeeD), a Mexican government-funded CIMMYT project, all 28,000 maize and about 100,000 wheat accessions stored in CIMMYT’s maize and wheat collection have now been sequenced.

This is providing the global maize and wheat community with a treasure trove of genes and data that are ready to be used.

In the developing world, Professor Kropff says the wheat and maize yield growth rates need to rise by 40 and 50 per cent respectively over the current rate.

“In 2017, the number of chronically undernourished people rose for the first time this century, reaching 815 million,” he says.

To address this demand through the ‘pillars’ of global food security – maize, rice and wheat – he says the team at CIMMYT use breeding technologies such as high-throughput and novel phenotyping tools, doubled haploid technology, molecular markers for key traits and rapid-cycle genomic selection.

Based on technological breakthroughs in the early 1990s and a strong breeding program on drought tolerance initiated by CIMMYT and subsequently by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, more than 300 drought-tolerant maize varieties have been developed and released across sub-Saharan Africa and India, - Professor Martin Kropff

These enable CIMMYT to fast-track development and delivery of new maize and wheat varieties that are adapted to climate-related stresses and include other grower-preferred traits, such as resistance to major diseases and insect pests, as well as enhanced nutrition and end-use quality.

“Based on technological breakthroughs in the early 1990s and a strong breeding program on drought tolerance initiated by CIMMYT and subsequently by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, more than 300 drought-tolerant maize varieties have been developed and released across sub-Saharan Africa and India,” he says.

“And CIMMYT’s rapid response to an epidemic of maize lethal necrosis disease in eastern Africa since 2012 has contained the disease within eastern Africa, curbing its spread to southern and West Africa.”

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On wheat, Professor Kropff says recent breakthrough research at CSIRO and 2Blades at the John Innes Centre in stacking rust-resistance genes may be a game-changer in allowing the development of varieties with durable rust resistance.

“CIMMYT collaborates with these institutions and plans to transfer these stacks into its elite lines,” he says.

Professor Kropff was a speaker at the 'Making Science Useful to Agriculture' workshop held in Adelaide in November 2018.

More than 20 scientists from across the world attended the workshop, led by South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI) principal crop ecophysiologist Dr Victor Sadras.

Topics discussed ranged from R&D funding models, to plant breeding, global food security, climate and agronomy.​

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