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   Global research themes  GT-Harnessing biotechnology

Harnessing biotechnology

Leader's Note

Breeding for crop productivity, sustainability and nutritional quality in marginal areas requires an integrated multidisciplinary approach. Conventional approaches to germplasm enhancement and crop breeding have had dramatic impacts on food productivity, particularly in systems that can afford high inputs of fertilizer, water and pesticides. However, in order to reduce rural poverty and achieve a sustainable development of farming systems, there is a need to address the more complex issues of productivity under marginal cropping environments. Crops for these production systems must have drought tolerance, host plant resistance to pest and diseases, enhanced nutrition, resilience to changing climatic patterns, and offer an adequate balance of production for multipurpose demands including feed and fodder. Establishing, synergizing and backstopping such networks are a primary focus for ICRISAT in Africa and Asia.

ICRISAT firmly believes in the potential of biotechnology to enhance the speed, precision, efficiency and value addition of its crop improvement efforts. This is especially true in addressing complex traits that have remained intransigent to conventional breeding approaches. In addition, many of the crops under ICRISAT's mandate receive little attention in terms of scientific research, especially in biotechnology, and thus it is critical that ICRISAT focuses its efforts on these important crops.

ICRISAT's Global Theme, Harnessing Biotechnology for the Poor , was established in 2001 to provide a concerted effort in the application of modern science for its mandated crops. A multidisciplinary team of scientists are assigned to the Theme and provide expertise in both the laboratory and field aspects of biotechnology applications to crop improvement.

Biotechnology is a broad field, and ICRISAT employs techniques in many areas, including the more traditional technologies such as the use of tissue culture for embryo rescue of wide-cross hybrids and immunological methods for antibody production; the modern genomic technologies such as structural and functional genomics to identify, isolate and manipulate genes for traits of interest; genetic engineering to introduce novel genetic variability for traits lacking sufficient inheritable diversity; and physiology, entomology and pathology to secure the accuracy of phenotyping and to progress toward trait dissection and gene function. In addition to these technologies, ICRISAT develops and adopts bioinformatics and biometrics systems to provide the necessary links, databases and analysis tools required by ICRISAT's global researchers and partners.

Specific target traits and crops are determined in close collaboration with the Global Themes on Crop Improvement; Agro-ecosystems and Institutions, Markets, Policy and Impacts; and with ICRISAT's many global partners. These interactions ensure that the highest priority traits are being addressed in each crop, and that the most appropriate technologies are being used in each case.

Theme Goal

The overall goal of the Global Theme on Biotechnology is to reduce poverty, hunger, malnutrition and environmental degradation in the SAT by applying promising genomic, genetic engineering, wide-hybridization, diagnostic and bioinformatics tools and approaches to the genetic improvement of ICRISAT's mandate crops.

Theme Objectives

In our efforts to reach the above goal, we strive to:

  • Develop the genomic tools to efficiently tap beneficial alleles for traits in the available gene pools of ICRISAT crop species;
  • Improve the efficiency, effectiveness, speed and precision of plant breeding for abiotic stress tolerance, pest and disease resistance, better agronomic traits, and improved food, feed and fodder quality; and
  • Develop diagnostic tools for the detection of viral infections, toxic contaminants of crops and crop-based products, presence of transgenes, and purity of seed production systems.

Each project involves a multi-disciplinary team of scientists and depends on the proper application of a range of technologies and evaluation methods, available within ICRISAT and/or our global partners. Activities within each project are conducted to develop the most effective and efficient technologies and techniques in ICRISAT's laboratories in Asia and Africa, and/or our many partner institutes around the world.

The majority of the scientists are based in ICRISAT's laboratories located at its Headquarters in Patancheru, Andhra Pradesh, India. Two scientists are based at the Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa (BecA) facility located on the ILRI campus in Nairobi, Kenya, and one scientist is based in Niamey, Niger. Part of the Theme's plan for 2009-2015 will be to strengthen the scientific capacity in Africa through additional appointments and collaborative projects.

In looking towards 2015, the Global Theme on Biotechnology has developed the strategies to ensure that the necessary tools and techniques are available for ICRISAT and its partners to use in their efforts to develop improved crop varieties for the SAT. These strategies will be used to provide the required biotechnology-based inputs to meeting the outputs outlined under the CGIAR System Priorities 1 (‘Sustaining biodiversity for current and future generations') and 2 (‘Producing more and better food at lower cost through genetic improvements'). Further details on the specific goals, outputs, outcomes and impact pathways can be found under each Regional Program strategy.

The Global Theme's scientists have made great progress in the adoption and application of various tools and techniques of biotechnology. Some of the most significant achievements in 2006-08 include the following:

  • The Centre of Excellence in Genomics to provide high-throughput, low-cost genotyping services for research and breeding with the financial support of Department of Biotechnology and is fully functional. Now, the CEG has the capacity to generate about one million data points per year. NARS started using our genotyping services.
  • CEG successfully organized four training courses during 2008, and trained 84 scientists including 7 from overseas.
  • Launched a platform for Translational Research on Transgenic Crops (PTTC) with support from DBT, Govt. of India, which serves to evaluate potential new genetic engineering options and then advance these, in a focused way, to meet specific objectives in agriculture.
  • Large scale genomic resources e.g. 2000-5000 SSR markers, 400,000- 500,000 ESTs and 50,000- 80,000 BAC-end sequences generated in chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut.
  • Sorghum crop-to-wild gene flow assessed in Kenya and Mali to inform in situ conservation strategies and environmental risk assessment for future introduction of genetically engineered sorghum.
  • Development and field testing of several Striga resistant sorghum varieties through Marker Assisted Backrossing.
  • Widespread adoption of a pearl millet hybrid improved for downy mildew resistance through marker-assisted selection.
  • Development and initial analysis of pearl millet hybrids with improved stover yield and feed value through marker-assisted selection.
  • Dissection of key traits related to the control of leaf water loss in pearl millet and discriminating pearl millet genotypes sensitive to terminal drought from tolerant ones
  • Establishment of a large scale root study facility allowing precise measurement of root-related traits and plant water relations.
  • Enhancement of the salinity screening facility, by increasing the capacity to approximately 7000 pots, and by adding a drip irrigation system to ensure precise water of the plants.
  • Evidence that DREB1A transgenic events of groundnut are endowed with traits such as water use efficiency and enhanced root growth under drought conditions.
  • The first SSR-based genetic linkage map for cultivated tetraploid groundnut published.
  • Formation of “reference sets” of global germplasm of ICRISAT's mandated crop species based on population structure determined from SSR allelic variation.
  • Development of large EST data sets for use in marker development of several of ICRISAT’s mandated crop species.
  • Development of EST-SSR markers for sorghum and DArT marker platforms for pearl millet and groundnut.
  • Development and analysis of sorghum lines with improved green leaf area maintenance through marker-assisted selection.
  • Development and initial analysis of sorghum lines with improved shoot fly resistance through marker-assisted selection.
  • Marker-assisted selection to improve Striga resistance in farmer-preferred sorghum varieties for 4 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa
  • Use of SSR marker data and hybrid performance data to identify combining ability groups in sorghum and pearl millet (in partnership with GT-Crop Improvement) for West Africa and South Asia.
  • The identification of a new A 5 CMS system for pigeonpea derived from the wild species, Cajanus acutifolius.
  • Introgression of Helicoverpa armigera resistance and identification of high seed weight lines from Cajanus acutifolius, a wild from secondary gene pool of pigeonpea.
  • Broadened the genetic base of pigeonpea by introgressing useful traits such as Phytophthora blight resistance, H. armigera resistance, desirable plant type, higher seed weight than cultivated pigeonpea, from Cajanus platycarpus, a wild relative from tertiary gene pool of pigeonpea.
  • Developed new sources of Arachis hypogaea by the development of synthetic amphidiploid groundnuts.
  • Introgression of Helicoverpa armigera resistance from wild Cicer species.
  • Promising transgenic events of groundnut and pigeonpea carrying the maize psy1 gene for enhanced ß- carotene levels available for further studies.
  • Development of transgenic groundnut lines with high levels of b -carotene through the insertion of the maize psy1 gene.
  • Transfer and extension of transformation technologies for the mandate crops to the ESA region.
  • Transfer of transgenic groundnut events resistant to GRAV for testing in African locations.
  • Transfer of the ICRISAT developed LIMS software to BecA, ILRI and IITA in Africa.
  • ICRIS database made accessible to users at all of ICRISAT office locations, currently contains genotype (11), phenotype(9) datasets from sorghum, pearl millet, chickpea and groundnut, besides marker data.
  • Data analysis applications like iMAS and sequence analysis pipelines on the Paracel cluster have seen several downloads and users from national programmes.
  • LIMS evaluated by three ARCs for adaptation; being used by a private sector partner and two national research centres besides the CEG at ICRISAT.
  • Training a large number of national program scientists the applied use of markers in plant breeding.

For more details contact: Global Theme Leader,

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