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USAID-supported project to apply genomics research to sorghum improvement

October 7, 2013. An international team led by the University of Georgia’s Plant Genome Mapping Laboratory will work toward sustainable intensification of sorghum production, in a $4.98 million initiative recently funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

The project will use new genomics tools to address urgent needs for a more drought resilient food supply, increase rates of sorghum improvement to better meet long-term population growth, and investigate production systems that promote sustainable farming, particularly regarding preservation and/or restoration of soil resources and water quality.

“The project offers a unique opportunity to fully exploit the potential of new genomic tools in improving efficiency and effectiveness of sorghum improvement programs,” said ICRISAT Director General, Dr William Dar. “The smallholder farmers in the drylands will be the final beneficiaries of this research, contributing to move them from impoverished subsistence farming to prosperous market orientation.”

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in its stations in Africa and headquarters in Hyderabad, India, will actively participate in the project by coordinating and leading the major goal on improving sorghum’s drought and heat tolerance, and will have active involvement in the goal on improving rationing ability in sorghum.

Sorghum is sometimes called “the camel of cereals” because it is able to grow in arid climates prone to drought, which has made it essential in areas like the Sahel region of Africa where it is often too dry to grow other cereals barring pearl millet. Despite its importance for food security, sorghum improvement has lagged that of maize, wheat and rice.

Although sorghum is the most drought tolerant of the world’s major cereal crops, moisture stress remains one of the major constraints to its production. With a worldwide water crisis looming, a primary goal of the new project is to improve drought and heat tolerance, mitigating threats of drought to food security.

The researchers also plan to explore transforming sorghum production systems by initiating the development of perennial varieties of sorghum adapted to key agro-ecologies in sub-Subharan Africa.  The outcome from this research will help to evaluate possibilities of reaping multiple crops from single plantings, and increasing the extent and duration of soil cover by plant roots to mitigate disadvantages of conventional annual crops including soil erosion and nutrient leaching. Spreading seed and soil preparation/sowing costs over multiple cropping cycles may also permit smallholders to be able to afford hybrid seed, and benefit from hybrid vigor.

“We have spent 20 years building genomic tools and fundamental knowledge of sorghum,” said the project director, University of Georgia (UGA) Regents Professor Andrew Paterson. “This is an exciting opportunity to put all this research to work, improving human lives in some of the most impoverished parts of the world while also advancing progress toward a more bio-based economy through sustainable intensification of agricultural production.”

Sorghum was the first plant of African origin to have its genome sequenced, as published in 2009 in an international effort also led by Paterson, who heads the UGA Plant Genome Mapping Laboratory.

The research team includes partners from ICRISAT, Jimma University (Ethiopia), The Land Institute (Kansas, USA), and the Agricultural Research Council (ARC)-South Africa.

Discoveries during and beyond the 5-year project duration will feed directly into uptake and delivery programs through well-established links between our collaborating institutions with other partner institutions and farmer networks in West Africa, East Africa, South Africa, India and internationally.

For the project’s broad goal on improving drought and heat tolerance, ICRISAT in India is represented by Santosh Deshpande, who will coordinate activities on the development of new population(s), genomics activities and data analysis; Vincent Vadez and Jana Kholova, to perform crop simulation to assess prevailing stress scenarios and trait dissection for drought tolerance; and Ashok Kumar to advance the work on heat tolerance.

ICRISAT in Mali is represented in the project by Eva Weltzein and Fred Rattunde, who will advance and evaluate sorghum populations for testing in West Africa and involve farmers in variety evaluations. For the goal on transforming production system through ratooning in sorghum, ICRISAT in India is represented by HD Upadhyaya and Shivali Sharma, to generate test cross populations for evaluation and data analysis. As part of project activities in Eastern and Southern Africa, ICRISAT in Nairobi, Kenya will be involved in the field evaluation of sorghum populations. ICRISAT is a member of the CGIAR Consortium.

By Allan Muturi

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