SATrends Issue 62 January 2006
  • Space bridges expert-farmer gap
  • DREB1A holds water, helps overcome drought
  • New structures recharge groundwater
  • Improving pigeonpea with the wild

  • 1. Space bridges expert-farmer gap

    When the President of India, His Excellency APJ Abdul Kalam, inaugurated the First National Virtual Congress of Farmers on 5 January from Hyderabad, India, it was a case of creating unique linkages. The First Citizen of India was answering the down-to-earth questions of the farmers from villages across the country. And, he was using the hi-tech space technology to reach the remote villages from Hyderabad.

    President of India, His Excellency APJ Abdul Kalam, talks with villagers across the country through satellite link.

    In February 2005, the Virtual Academy for the Semi-Arid Tropics (VASAT) facilitated a videoconference (VC) between the groundnut farmers of Pudukottai, Dindigal and Pondicherry, and experts via the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) satellite link available with the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF).

    Encouraged by the outcome of this VC, an elaborate plan was drawn to connect some of the most disaster-prone areas of the country with the centers of expertise such as MSSRF and ICRISAT. ISRO readily agreed to share the bandwidth of one of its most advanced satellites EDUSAT and provide video link facility to Koraput in Orissa, Pokhran in Rajasthan, Anandwan and Waifad in Maharashtra, Addakal in Andhra Pradesh, besides the already existing facility at Pudukottai and Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu.

    Once the facility was up and running, MSSRF and ICRISAT took the opportunity to launch the First National Virtual Congress of Farmers as part of the 93rd Indian Science Congress held at Hyderabad. The President of India, His Excellency APJ Abdul Kalam, inaugurated the Congress on 5 January at the Acharya NG Ranga Agricultural University, Hyderabad.

    Spontaneous and articulate, President Kalam needed no time to strike a cord with the farm families who were virtually connected from across India. He faced a volley of questions ranging from how to cope with droughts to ways of protecting indigenous knowledge on medicinal herbs. He also facilitated discussions between the experts located at ICRISAT, Patancheru, and MSSRF, Chennai.

    This unique interaction between the First Citizen of the country and the poor farm families was broadcast live on Doordarshan, the Indian national television channel. The Governor of Andhra Pradesh, HE Sushilkumar Shinde; Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Dr YS Rajasekhara Reddy; the Director General of FAO, Dr Jacques Diouf; Director General of ICRISAT, Dr William Dar; and the Chairman of the National Commission on Farmers, Prof MS Swaminathan, also participated in the interaction.

    ICRISAT plans to maintain a regular contact with the farm families to provide them with expert advice from time to time. It is also planning to schedule periodic discussions with farmers facilitated from experts and assess its impact after reasonable time gap.

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    2. DREB1A holds water, helps overcome drought

    The semi-arid tropics (SAT) are prone to hot summers and erratic rainfall. In such regions, abiotic stresses such as drought, low temperature and high salinity, are environmental factors that dramatically limit plant growth and crop productivity. Drought is the chief factor for yield loss in the SAT.

    The DREB1A gene added additional drought resistance to the groundnut plants in the right.

    Improving the realizable yields of crops under water deficit conditions is perhaps the only option. The genetic improvement of drought tolerance is probably the most rewarding approach. However, progress in developing genotypes with enhanced tolerance to abiotic stresses, particularly drought, has been very slow.

    Plant adaptation to stress is a phenomenon linked to multiple genes. Several genes belonging to both structural/functional and regulatory gene categories have been identified and are effective in providing a stress-tolerant response using the transgenic approach.

    At ICRISAT, efficient transformation protocols have been developed for important legumes such as groundnut, chickpea and pigeonpea. Drought responsive element of Arabidopsis thaliana encoded by DREB1A cDNA was used to develop transgenic groundnut. This activity is a collaborative effort between ICRISAT and Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS), Japan.

    By using Agrobacterium-mediated genetic transformation, a large number of independently transformed events of transgenic groundnut variety JL 24 were produced. Five transgenic events have been selected for the response of transpiration to progressive soil drying. This protocol is now being used by other CGIAR centers to evaluate the effect of DREB1A gene in other crops such as rice, wheat, and chickpea.

    Results obtained from the five selected events are very promising for several reasons:

    1. Most transgenic events reduce their transpiration upon drought imposition in dryer soils than JL 24.
    2. Transpiration efficiency (TE) of most transgenic events is higher than JL 24 under well-watered conditions and it seems to correlate with a different stomatal behavior.
    3. TE of one of the events was circa 50% higher than JL 24 under water stress.
    4. Unlike previous studies on TE, no significant correlation was observed between TE and carbon discrimination ratio. This lack of correlation could reveal a unique type of stomatal behavior in the DREB1A groundnut, which might help in improving water use. For the first time, the DREB1A transgenics enable us to test hypotheses related to the physiology of TE by using material that can be considered as isogenic to the groundnut variety JL 24.

    The DREB1A transgenic groundnuts, therefore, provide new opportunities for exploring the physiological basis of intermittent drought tolerance by plants, and identifying the genes responsible for high TE.

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    3. New structures recharge groundwater

    To collect and harvest rain water mud is as good as stone, and more cost-effective too. These are the findings of a study carried out in the integrated watershed program undertaken by a consortium of partners, led by ICRISAT, in three states of India.

    Low-cost mini-percolation tank (earthen structure) at Kothapally watershed, Andhra Pradesh.

    In India, through various watershed programs, heavy investments are being made in the construction of groundwater recharging structures for improving the groundwater resources. Currently, masonry type structures are constructed in the watershed programs, which are expensive and difficult to maintain.

    As a part of ICRISAT integrated watershed program, a study at three watersheds Kothapally in Andhra Pradesh, Lalatora in Madhya Pradesh and Gokulpura-Goverdhanpura in Rajasthan was taken up to assess the cost-effectiveness of various groundwater recharging structures. At these sites several types of structures, viz, earthen check dam, masonry check dam, gabion structure, stone gully plugs, mini-percolation tank, sunken pit and dugout tank, were constructed and evaluated under different soils, rainfall and runoff conditions. Some of the salient findings from the study are as follows:

    • In most situations, small earthen structures are found to be most economical for recharging groundwater. The effective unit cost of water storage in small earthen check dams was in the range of Rs 12 to Rs 52 per cu.m, while in case of masonry structures it was Rs 38 to Rs 92 per cu.m.
    • Compared to masonry structures, more number of small and medium earthen structures can be constructed with the project money, benefiting more number of wells and farmers (equity of benefits).
    • Small earthen structures can be easily constructed and maintained by the local community, improving the sustainability of the structures. Most of masonry structures demands the help of engineers.
    • Seven-years (19992005) of observations from various watersheds clearly indicate that the small earthen structures can withstand the high rainfall and runoff conditions and are quite stable even under these conditions.

    The small and medium earthen structures play a vital role in recharging groundwater. In most of the situations, these structures will be more cost-effective and sustainable and will provide better equity in the groundwater availability.

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    4. Improving pigeonpea with the wild

    In crop improvement, a wild species is valued if it possesses traits of agronomic importance and can be hybridized easily with cultivated species. The genus Cajanus has 32 species, of which only pigeonpea, [Cajanus cajan (L.) Millsp.] is cultivated. Cajanus scarabaeoides, one of the closely related wild species of pigeonpea, has high level of tolerance to drought and resistance to insect-pests.

    Plant, flower, pod, and seeds of Cajanus scarabaeoides (plant in field was supported to climb).

    C. scarabaeoides is the most widely distributed wild species and occurs naturally in most parts of India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, South Eastern Africa, western coast of Africa and Oceania. Somatic chromosome features of C. scarabaeoides are similar to the cultivated pigeonpea.

    Some of the C. scarabaeoides accessions flower very early (34 days compared to about 60 days in short-duration pigeonpea), have high pod set percentage (74% compared to about 20% in pigeonpea) and multiseeded pods (6.04 seeds compared to about 3.0 in pigeonpea). Grains of C. scarabaeoides are rich in protein (29.3%) and methionine and cystine amino acids (3.06% of protein) compared to 20.5% protein and 2.2% methionine and cystine in pigeonpea. Availability of cytoplasmic-genic male-sterility (CMS) is one of the pre-requisites to utilize heterosis breeding for enhanced crop productivity. In pigeonpea, functional CMS was developed from the cross of C. scarabaeoides and cultivated pigeonpea.

    A large collection of C. scarabaeoides (100 accessions from 8 countries) held at the ICRISAT genebank was recently characterized for nine qualitative and 13 quantitative traits including tolerance to lepidopteron insects. Of these, C. scarabaeoides is particularly rich for four traits (early flowering, higher values for seeds pod-1, pods free from insect damage and protein content) that are much sought in pigeonpea cultivars. The accessions scoring top for these traits are ICPs 15695, 15883 (early flowering), ICPs 15914, 15751 (high seed number), ICPs 15719, 15699 (very low insect damage) and ICPs 15711, 15695 (high grain protein content).

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