kick-off meeting group foto

Recently, research partners of the UK-CGIAR project Leveraging genetic innovations for accelerated breeding of climate resilient and nutritious crops held a kick-off meeting. The project is a collaboration between the John Innes Centre (JIC), the Norwich Institute for Sustainable Development (NISD), the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), and the International Centre for Wheat and Maize Improvement CIMMYT. The local partners for the project are the Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), Agricultural Research Centre (ARC), and Qauid-I-Azam University (QAU) in Pakistan. The online meeting brought together scientists from respective organisations, giving them the opportunity to present their progress so far and discuss plans for the project over the coming years.

Professor Cristobal Uauy of JIC and ICARDA’s Dr Anna Backhaus, the project leads, began the meeting by giving a short overview of the project aims. The main goal of the project is to develop locally adapted wheat cultivars with enhanced resistance to rusts and elevated levels of iron. Researchers will test enhanced varieties in Kenya, Egypt, and Pakistan. Each of these countries has adopted policies designed to increase national wheat production and decrease dependence on imports.   

The project also aims to increase the likelihood of uptake of improved wheat varieties in target countries, because this will improve the chances of the research being incorporated into breeding programmes for other crops. The division of labour will be spread across four work packages (WPs). Each WP is aligned with the project goals.

WP1: Tackling wheat rust through mutagenesis and genome editing

Dubbed the polio of agriculture, wheat rust is a fungal disease that causes significant loss to crop yield and quality. While progress has been made in breeding wheat crops that are more resilient to the impacts of the disease, the emergence of more aggressive pathogens leads to “boom and bust” cycles of wheat production for many states, especially those in Africa and South Asia.

WP1 of the project will address these challenges by expanding the genetic diversity of modern cultivars. In doing so, the work aims to equip partners with the necessary tools to develop more rust-resilient wheat varieties. This WP has two elements. The first will be looking at the mutagenesis side and the second will focus on genome editing. Professor Diane Saunders of JIC and Dr Godwin Macharia of KALRO will lead the research for this work package.

Puccinia graminis (stem rust of cereals); symptoms of a new and virulent race of wheat rust. Credit: CABI Digital Library.

JIC researchers have already identified three genes potentially involved in wheat rust susceptibility. At the meeting, Professor Saunders explained that the goal is to disrupt the function of these genes using genome editing and then test the potential of these lines to produce more resistant crops through greenhouse tests. In the second and third years the aim will be to evaluate the genome edited lines in the field in Kenya, Egypt and Pakistan.

Ahead of creating the genome edited lines, the teams sowed out – in Kenya in February of this year – mutant lines developed via mutagenesis for a subset of the genes. These lines are currently growing and will be evaluated for rust resistance in the coming months. Moreover, the teams are currently bulking seed of the TILLING mutants which will be screened in Kenya, Egypt and Pakistan throughout the whole project for each year and in each of the different seasons.

WP2: Increasing iron content in wheat

Iron and zinc deficiency is a global problem. Estimates suggest that globally over half of children under five years and over two-thirds of non-pregnant women of reproductive age are micronutrient deficient (in either iron, zinc, or vitamin A). Increasing the mineral micronutrient content of staple cereal crops through selective breeding has been proposed as an important way to alleviate iron and zinc deficiencies. While this approach has proven successful for zinc, increasing grain iron content has proven particularly challenging due to the lack of natural variation, meaning that many relevant research programmes have been discontinued.

TILLING lines in rust trials at KALRO-Njoro (lines shown: 1 Feb. 2024).

Led by Professor Janneke Balk of JIC and Awais Rasheed (QAU), WP2 will work towards developing iron biofortification in wheat by harnessing genome editing. In her presentation, Professor Balk described how the package will build on recent work by JIC which discovered that with a thorough understanding of iron metabolism in crops, the total amount and the distribution of iron can be manipulated to benefit human nutrition. WP2 teams are currently evaluating selected genome edited plants of a Pakistani wheat cultivar for iron content in the glasshouse. The plan is to re-import lines into Pakistan for testing in the third year of the project as well as to test the high-iron lines in the field in Egypt and Kenya.

WP3: Establishing big-data analytics to facilitate germplasm evaluation

Whole genome sequencing (WGS) has revolutionised genetic research, allowing breeders and scientists to access the full genetic information of crops. The recent rise of data-driven approaches to plant breeding means genome sequencing is becoming more standard. Integrating big data with WGS will be instrumental in optimising breeding and pre-breeding programmes to discover traits and accelerate varietal development.

Symptoms of iron deficiency in wheat in the field. Areas of iron-deficient plants appear yellow due to chlorosis. Credit: Patrick Wall/CIMMYT.

CIMMYT’s Dr Susanne Dreisigacker and ICARDA’s Dr Anna Backhaus will lead the WP’s efforts to leverage available and novel WGS data to evaluate and accelerate the use of diversity in CGIAR breeding programmes. Dr Dreisigacker’s presentation outlined how the work package will use existing data produced by CIMMYT and novel data from ICARDA to advance genomic analysis in the breeding and germplasm units of CGIAR (ICARDA and CIMMYT), improve marker-based genomics, identify genetic diversity currently not present in modern cultivars, and assess the potential benefits of WGS for future CGIAR research on a variety of crops.

WP4: Partnerships for impact

The activities for the three aforementioned work packages will depend heavily on the project partners working together effectively. NISD’s Professor Nitya Rao and Dr Dina Najjar, senior gender scientist at ICARDA, will be leading WP4 which focuses on people and partnerships, capacity building and informed deployment. Rao and Najjar gave outlines of the three objectives for this WP. The first is to support the partnerships required for success. The second is to increase the capacity of researchers so that it enables the development and deployment of new wheat varieties. The final objective is to understand the local ecosystems in the countries where research is being conducted so that it allows impact to be maximised.

JIC at KALRO. Credit: JIC.

Galvanising existing collaborations

The project builds on strong histories of collaboration. The long-standing strategic partnership between CGIAR and JIC has involved years of germplasm exchange and other cooperative initiatives, including the International Wheat Yield Partnership.

Moreover, JIC, ICARDA and CIMMYT have well-established ties with the local partners on the project. In Kenya, JIC and CIMMYT work with KALRO on the Wheat Disease Early Warning Advisory System. JIC also collaborated with KALRO on the Bioinformatics Community of Practice initiative hosted by the Alliance for Accelerated Crop Improvement in Africa. In Pakistan, QAU Islamabad and JIC developed high iron genome edited lines. In Egypt, JIC and ARC collaborated on wheat genetics research and provided training on genomics. For over forty years, ICARDA has worked with partners in Egypt to develop more resilient and climate-smart varieties of strategic crops. In 2009, ICARDA and ARC established the Wheat Improvement Program to strengthen Egypt’s national capacity in wheat production.

The funding for the project from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the work of the UK-CGIAR Centre is designed to “supercharge” the relationships between partners. The Centre’s goal is for the partnership to stimulate locally led innovation so that the project achieves impact and helps to create more resilient food systems.