Strategic initiatives investment update: science and innovation as pillars

Building the institute’s competitive edge and core competencies, while at the same time identifying research gaps in agriculture, are key to moving in the right direction. This was demonstrated during a session providing updates on five Governing Board-approved investments for strategic research. Instances of how ICRISAT has been strategically alert and has tapped into opportunities were presented.

Briefing the Board on Hybrid pigeonpea purity testing kits, Dr Rachit K Saxena, Senior Scientist, Applied Genomics, dwelt on the risk of hybrid breeding in pigeonpea due to unnoticed mixtures and out-crossing, and the criticality of maintaining the highest level of genetic purity of parental lines and hybrids in order to harness the benefits of high heterosis. He underlined the advantages of molecular marker-based testing, and informed that markers were now available to differentiate between A and B lines and for identifying fertility restorer lines. Single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) which have 100% efficiency in detecting heterozygotes are available for purity testing for 25 hybrid combinations. Unique signature sequences are being developed for parental lines. It is proposed to establish a platform for hybrids/parents seed production based on markers, which can be used by the public and private sectors in their breeding programs.

Dr Michael Hauser, Theme Leader – Markets, Institutions, Nutrition and Diversity (MIND), made a presentation on Drylands in transition: update on the socio-economics research strategy, elaborating on the latest recruitments, the stalling of the MIND Plus network, and the setting up of comprehensive country donor lists for Kenya, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and India. He discussed evidence and tools for governing transitions to sustainable agri-food systems involving foresight on farming and food, agri-food system innovation, transition and scaling pathways, facilitation and collective behaviour and impact assessment and learning. He felt that the only way to secure large program funding is through a coordinated approach to fundraising. Pilots have started in Bulawayo, Lilongwe and Nairobi on urban dietary behavior change and nutrition-sensitive value chains, and intensive engagement is on with UNICEF, WFP, UN-Habitat, EU delegations, DFID, IDRC on future program funding. Conversations are on with EU, bilateral donors, BMGF and IFAD on Crop-livestock integration for conflict transformation in agro-pastoral East/West-Africa. He also reported on the progress towards self-funded socio-economics programs.

The setting up of the Smart Food Executive Council, with APAARI (Asia-Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions) , CORAF, FARA (Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa) and FANRPAN (Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network) as members, was the highlight of the update on the Smart Food Initiative by Ms Joanna Kane-Potaka, Assistant Director General – External Relations. In WCA, the promotion of the initiative has involved Niger’s First lady becoming a Smart Food Ambassador, master classes on pearl millet dishes, panel discussions and food displays at fairs, and promotions through ambassador chefs and Indigenous shows in Africa. In the global arena, promotions have been in the form of an alignment of Smart Food with Sehgal Foundation and representation at the International Congress Hidden Hunger held in Germany. In India, a Smart Food Industrial Caterers Symposium and the presence at the Organics & Millets Fair, and Smart Food Culinary Symposium have enhanced visibility. In the pipeline are publications with key information to back Smart Food as well as the promotion of Smart Food and ICRISAT’s mandate crops. The priorities for 2019 will include fundraising (especially for the Endowment Fund), promotional efforts, and Africa and Asia chapters of Smart Food.

Providing updates on the Systems Biology Research Initiative, Dr Rajeev K Varshney, Research Program Director – Genetic Gains, described in detail its three modules. The module on gut microbiome  (2 projects) is focusing on improving human nutrition, exploring iron deficiency anemia in adolescent girls, severe acute malnutrition in children under 5 and Type 2 Diabetes in adults. The soil microbiome module (1 project) for crop productivity and environmental sustainability is being done in chickpea and pigeonpea and seed microbiome in chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut. The third module on integrative biology (2 projects) centers around dissecting drought tolerance in chickpea and exploring a two-line hybrid breeding system in pigeonpea. In addition, three proposals have been submitted and two proposals are in the pipeline for extramural funding in the three modules.

In her presentation on Molecular tools – Corteva Agriscience, Dr Pooja Bhatnagar-Mathur, Theme leader – Cell, Molecular Biology & Genetic Engineering, reported on a year’s engagement with Corteva Agriscience (Dupont Pioneer Pvt Ltd) that led to collaborations in genome editing for dryland crops/traits in order to maximize the value of CRISPR technology for the smallholder agriculture. ICRISAT and Corteva Agriscience entered into a Master Alliance Agreement in April 2018. The partnership will lower barriers to entry in the CRISPR space and will potentially enable a disruptive reduction in cost for development of both farmer- and consumer-centric traits/products in our crops. It will help in delivering improved sorghum and millets for increased Striga resistance; enhancing quality traits (i.e. rancidity in milled pearl millet) and improved genetic gains (through scalable hybrid systems). The proposed genome editing pipelines in these crops will progressively merge to deliver effective solutions in the value chain to reflect our holistic approach on each crop X trait.

These objectives are being achieved by utilizing de novo site-directed variations to expand the genetic base of the respective crops. Genome editing innovations are being exploited to speed up the introduction of genotypes with valuable new traits.

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