In order to enhance the annual rate of genetic gains in crop improvement programs, the Accelerated Crop Improvement initiative was recently unveiled at ICRISAT. It is expected that, with this, the efficiency of the crop improvement programs for crops grown in drylands will receive a boost.
Inaugurating the program, Dr Jacqueline Hughes, Director General, ICRISAT, said, “For sustainable production, it is important to keep an eye on all components, including crop improvement, breeding trials, seed systems, market needs, production systems and nutrition needs, and I am happy that this initiative addresses all these areas.”
With an objective to assess the status of and streamline crop improvement programs for higher genetic gains, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sponsored reviews and provided suggestions on using the Breeding Program Assessment Tool (BPAT) recommendations for ICRISAT breeding programs. During these reviews, the BPAT teams identified several key areas for improvement in crop breeding as well as other allied disciplines.
Dr Arvind Kumar, Deputy Director General – Research, ICRISAT, said, “ICRISAT has reorganized crop improvement programs with 15 crop teams, including six in Asia, six in East and Southern Africa (ESA) and three in West and Central Africa (WCA). We now have a comprehensive breeding strategy across all programs and regions and look forward to its 100% implementation.”
The 15 crop teams, through frequent interactions, have developed crop improvement plans – target product profiles, breeding schemes, trait pipeline, crop improvement plan addressing BPAT recommendations and resource mobilizations – across crops and regions. These plans have been reviewed and approved for each of 15 crop teams.
Three Regional Crop Improvement Hubs – one each in Hyderabad (India) for Asia, Matopos (Zimbabwe) for ESA and Bamako (Mali) for WCA – have been established and a Crop Improvement Operations Team (CIOT) has been created as well. ICRISAT has upgraded its existing research infrastructure and established new ones in Hyderabad, Matopos and Bamako. These include phenotyping platforms for drought, stem borer, disease, grain quality; irrigation; upgrading screenhouses; expanding seed processing facility for a centralized seed inventory system; mechanization tools (tractor with GPS capability, planters, threshers, etc.); and digitization tools (handheld tablets with software, barcode printer/reader, etc.).
The CIOT, by assembling a central team of technical staff, will provide services such as seed preparation, packing, seed shipment, planting, trial/nursery/seed multiplication management, data collection, harvesting and processing, post-harvest data collection and seed storage to the crop improvement team in each region. Similarly, Product Placement Leaders (PPLs) have identified representative testing sites and hubs in close collaboration with NARS partners guided by the modelling work. Several appropriate test sites, entries, checks and experimental designs, guided by the Data Management and Analytical Support (DMAS) services, are being adopted in all crop improvement programs. Efforts are underway to form crop testing networks in the region to facilitate multi-location testing (MLTs).
“I am happy to see the multidisciplinary teams coming together, and I wish to see the same zeal across regions for efficient implementation and delivery as intended through this initiative,” said Dr Rebbie Harawa, Regional Director, ESA, ICRISAT.
Significantly, crop improvement programs in all regions will now be guided by Target Product Profiles (TPPs) that delineate preferred attributes in products (crops) for various market segments, benchmark cultivars and track progress for various attributes vis-à-vis the benchmarks. The product development process deploys suitable germplasm, breeding methods, genomic and phenomic tools to develop putative products ready for multi-environment testing.
Going forward, crop breeding activities will be carried out with contributions from all related disciplines, and with the engagement of CIOT and other facilities including Sequencing and Genomics Services (SGS), RapidGen, Trait Phenotyping, Data Management and Analytical Support services (DMAS). For instance, SGS is already providing marker services and genotyping services for undertaking marker-assisted selection and genomic selection in crop improvement programs. RapidGen is used in some of the crops; protocol standardization, optimization and scale-up are ongoing for other crops.
Nutrition trait phenotyping (NIRS and XRF) is routinely used to assess grain and fodder nutrition quality and other quality parameters like oil, starch fatty acids to guide breeding decisions and more recently CT-imaging algorithms have been developed for assessing physical properties of grain and/or pods. The biotic stress phenotyping team is engaged with the crop breeding teams to screen breeding populations for resistance to various diseases, insects and pests. DMAS is working very closely with the breeding teams for estimating number of appropriate test sites, entries, checks and developing experimental designs for developing and testing breeding populations. Data received from partners are uploaded in ‘Data Verse’, subjected to quality checks, validated and uploaded BMS. Multi-model analysis for single and pooled analysis and pBLUPS are used in analyzing the data. Improved breeding operations, tools, protocols and services will be shared with the partners, both public and private sector, to deliver the research outputs in the target ecologies of three regions.
Crop improvement teams consisting of scientists from several disciplines are working together to contribute to enhance genetic gain. For instance, Genomics, Pre-Breeding and Bioinformatics (GPB) will develop and utilize forward and reverse genetics, pre-breeding, bioinformatics and other “omics” technologies to develop and optimize trait discovery pipeline aligned with TPPs. GPB is contributing in the development and use of quality control (QC)-, trait-associated SNPs panels, mid-density SNP arrays, and trait validation and introgression pipeline in each crop improvement program.
Similarly, Crop Physiology and Modeling (CPM) team is contributing towards developing an understanding of key drivers of crop production systems and related value chains in order to provide clear targets and focus to the crop improvement efforts. The team is also characterizing TPEs for multi-location testing of advanced breeding populations and providing nutrition trait phenotyping services to crop teams.
The Crop Protection and Seed Health (CPSH) team is contributing in identification of stable disease resistance sources, integrating them into breeding programs, and addressing the impacts of climate variability on pest and diseases as a key for preparedness in managing emerging pest and diseases. Microbiology research is contributing to optimizing crop resilience and performance by unlocking and harnessing microbiome functions such as biological nitrogen fixation, P solubilization, biological control and microbial imprinting.
The Entomology team assists in tackling pests and promoting integrated pest management solutions and good agricultural practices for developing climate-resilient cultivars for major insect pests under future climate change scenarios. The Cell, Molecular Biology and Trait Engineering (CMBTE) team is using advanced gene editing and associated enabling technologies e.g., allele replacement, DNA-free editing, plant transformation, transfection, base substitutions, and transcriptional activation for native trait engineering, double haploidy to crop improvement teams.
Finally, the Seed Systems (SS) team is working as a vehicle to carry the improved genetics to farmers and other end users. It is involved in enabling the establishment of a robust system that quantitatively and qualitatively boosts the performance data substantiating varietal superiority; enhances the availability of early generation seeds (EGS) by strengthening the technical and business acumen of the public EGS systems, and establishes a clear path and handover process from the variety development through product placement and seed systems.
“The launch of Accelerated Crop Improvement initiative is a significant milestone in ICRISAT’s journey from the science of discovery to the science of delivery across all targeted regions. This amalgamation of multidisciplinary teams across all ICRISAT mandate crops would not have been possible without the guidance and support of the entire ICRISAT leadership and the dedicated work and contribution of Dr Harish Gandhi, Cluster Lead-Crop Breeding and Regional Breeding Lead (RBL)-Asia, Dr Hapson Mushoriwa, RBL-ESA and Dr Haile Desmae, RBL-WCA,” said Dr Rajeev K Varshney, Research Program Director, Accelerated Crop Improvement.
ICRISAT thanks the reviewers of BPAT, the Excellence in Breeding Platform and other collaborators and colleagues who helped ICRISAT develop this initiative for millets and legumes of the dryland regions of Africa and Asia.