3) New global initiative launched to harness biotechnology

The Molecular Breeding Platform (MBP) a one-stop shop for information, analytical tools and related services to design and efficiently conduct molecular-assisted breeding experiments aims to increase breeding efficiency in developing countries.

The MBP initiative was officially launched at the Marriott Convention Center in Hyderabad, India on 17 February. The four-day MBP launch programme is jointly initiated by the Generation Challenge Programme (GCP) of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). The MBP will have three components, the molecular breeding portal and helpdesk, information system and services component.

“It will be critically important for the users and developers in this initiative to work closely together,” noted Dr Jean-Marcel Ribaut, GCP Director. He also acknowledged ICRISAT as an important partner in this public initiative, which would not have been possible without the Gates Foundation’s financial support and commitment.

Dr Dave Bergvinson, Program Officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said that the five-year $12 Million project would revolutionize crop breeding and provide a level playing field allowing developing countries to take advantage of advanced plant breeding technology to meet the looming challenge in food security. He said that the flood-tolerant Swarna-Sub-1, a marker assisted rice hybrid has been successfully tested and adopted by the Bisauri Regional Progressive farmers Association in Uttar Pradesh under the supervision of Banaras Hindu University. Molecular breeding can succeed in the public sector, especially by partnering with the private sector, particularly with small- and medium-scale enterprises.

In his opening remarks, ICRISAT Director General Dr William Dar called for research through multi-partner platforms to help feed the burgeoning population of about 9.1 billion by 2050. He stressed the need for global agricultural production to grow by 70% by this time. Dr Dar said that development of molecular genetics and associated technologies offers hope, especially marker-assisted breeding. ICRISAT’s collaborative research led to a pearl millet hybrid resistant to downy mildew, and also played a major role in unraveling the sorghum genome.

In the MBP, ICRISAT will identify, deploy and support tools for management of genotypic characterization. It will also be concerned with establishing middleware infrastructure for networking database and applications, and implementing a configurable workflow system for molecular breeding.

Graham McLaren, GCP’s leader on Bioinformatics and crop information systems, and who will coordinate the platform, observes, “Great discoveries in molecular biology and information technology are having an important impact on plant breeding in large private companies because they can invest in infrastructure and capacity.” He adds, “This project will tap into the economies of scale afforded by collective access to make these technologies available to breeders at large, particularly in developing countries.” The first MBP customers will be 14 ongoing plant breeding projects in Africa and Asia.

The MBP launch will be followed by a two-step launch program for a GCP Indo–Chinese research initiative to improve wheat yields. The first launch will be in New Delhi on 22–23 February, and the second in Beijing on 25–27 February 2010.

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Molecular breeding – an advanced approach that employs molecular markers to select plants with desirable traits – is a more precise, rapid and cost-effective method of plant breeding, in comparison to its phenotypic counterpart. It has already proven to be of great benefit to the private sector, by improving the efficiency of the breeding process and by reducing the time taken to develop new varieties. However, plant breeders in the public sector and small private enterprises, particularly in developing countries, have had limited access to these tools and methods. This has slowed development of new cultivars and compromised effectiveness in attaining or maintaining food security. There are genes affecting important traits, which are already tagged, as well as new technologies for rapid improvement of cultivars that could be effectively deployed in developing countries, if researchers there could have access to the technology. The MBP aims to ensure that the fruits of the investments made in developing these tools are also available to the developing world.

For more information on the Molecular Breeding Platform, please contact Dr Graham McLaren, the MBP Coordinator, at g.mclaren@cgiar.org.

For more on the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme, please visit website: http://www.generationcp.org

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