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Study reveals diversity “blueprint” to help maize crops adapt to changing climates

Scientists have unlocked evolutionary secrets of landraces through an unprecedented study of allelic diversity, revealing more about the genetic basis of flowering time and how maize adapts to variable environments, according to new research published in Nature Genetics journal. The discovery opens up opportunities to explore and use landrace diversity in new ways to help breeders adapt crops to climate change and other emerging challenges to crop production.

Farmers worldwide have been ingeniously adapting landrace maize varieties to their local environments for thousands of years. In this landmark study, over 4,000 landraces from across the Americas were analyzed and their DNA characterized, using recent advances in genomics.

Public initiatives key to harnessing genetic diversity for food security, says genetic resources expert

Maize collections held at the CIMMYT genebank in Mexico.

Maize collections held at the CIMMYT genebank in Mexico.

Public initiatives to facilitate the use of genetic resources must be promoted to demonstrate the value they add to agriculture for development and food security research, says Kevin Pixley, director of the Genetic Resources Program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

Pixley heads the Seeds of Discovery (SeeD) initiative at CIMMYT through which scientists are working to unlock novel, or new, genetic diversity held in germplasm banks – often popularly known as gene banks – to accelerate the development of maize and wheat varieties that grow better under environmental pressures like erratic weather and water scarcity, as well as provide increased nutritional value. CIMMYT scientists do this by identifying crop varieties that display valuable traits like drought and heat-stress tolerance that allow them to flourish despite these stresses.

Symposium: Utilizing biodiversity for food security and sustainable development

Technological Institute of Sonora (ITSON)

Technological Institute of Sonora (ITSON)

The symposium “Utilizing biodiversity for food security and sustainable development” was held 27th October as part of the Biotechnology Summit 2016 that took place at the Technological Institute of Sonora (ITSON) in Ciudad Obregon. Organized by the Seeds of Discovery (SeeD) initiative, the symposium explained the fundamentals of improving the use of genetic resources for food and agriculture, and how this will contribute to the achievement of several of the United Nation’s sustainable development goals for 2030.

Keynote speakers included Kevin Pixley, director of SeeD; Pedro Figueroa, INIFAP researcher and a partner with SeeD; as well as Juan de Dios Hernández Quintero and Noemí G. Ortega Jiménez, post-graduate students conducting research under the SeeD initiative.

In collaboration with numerous partners, Seeds of Discovery is working to characterize the biodiversity of maize and wheat in order to identify specific gene forms, or alleles, with important traits for crop improvement. In addition, the initiative is working to develop a “genetic resources utilization” platform to allow the efficient utilization of these resources, as well as pre-breeding germplasm to validate and incorporate new genetic diversity to elite germplasm. SeeD also provides capacity development opportunities to ensure that these resources are accessible and can be utilized to improve food security. SeeD is also a pioneer of the Diversity Seek (DivSeek) initiative, which works to partner with other initiatives to make better use of crop genetic diversity to feed humanity.

The main objectives of the symposium were:

  • To describe the vision and impact of Seeds of Discovery, and their achievements up to the present date.
  • To present the expectations and experiences of the researchers and students that have participated in the initiative.
  • To stimulate the debate and create follow up plans on forming new alliances and partnerships to use biodiversity to tackle the agricultural challenges humanity faces.

Genetic diversity symposium at CIMMYT: “incredible opportunity” for students

Symposium participants, organizers and keynote speakers pause for a group photo.

Symposium participants, organizers and keynote speakers pause for a group photo.

The first DuPont Plant Sciences Symposia event ever held in Mexico took place at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Texcoco, Mexico on August 25th and 26th, 2016. The international symposium, “Genetic Diversity: The key to modern crop improvement and food security,” brought together students and experts from across the world to exchange knowledge about the uses and importance of genetic diversity for modern crop breeding.

Organized by postgraduate students working and conducting research with CIMMYT, the symposium offered a unique opportunity for young people interested in genetic diversity to attend workshops and interact with experts in their field. The event was attended by 146 students from 27 universities from Mexico and around the world, including the United States, China, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Brazil. Undergraduate students from five Mexican universities and one Costa Rican university followed the symposium via live streaming. The symposium was held in both English and Spanish with simultaneous translation.

“It’s rare that we get to attend symposiums like these, especially for free. This was an incredible opportunity,” said Francisco, a postgraduate student at the University of Chapingo in Texcoco, Mexico.

Several of the student organizers pause for a photo during the symposium.

Several of the student organizers pause for a photo during the symposium.

The symposium, one of nearly 20 DuPont Pioneer symposia that will be held this year across the world, was the first to be held in a research center rather than a university. As the home to one of the world’s largest collections of genetic diversity in maize and wheat, CIMMYT was chosen as an ideal location for students to learn about the latest advances and technologies in this field. The Center is also home to cutting edge projects such as the Seeds of Discovery initiative, which works to unlock and utilize novel genetic diversity from genebanks to accelerate the development of improved maize and wheat varieties.

“Things have advanced so much since I first started studying genetics—for young scientists it’s such an incredible time to be in this field,” said Kevin Pixley, director of the Seeds of Discovery (SeeD) initiative and the Genetic Resources Program at CIMMYT, and keynote speaker at the event. “Don’t be scared about figuring it all out. Not every method will work, but you will learn so much. This is a time like no other for science and genetic diversity, with cutting edge technological frontiers such as gene editing. We’re just scratching the surface, science is moving so fast, but that means that it’s out there for you to make a big discovery, there is huge potential.”

The speakers, international experts in the fields of genetic diversity and crop science, presented on topics such as to how to utilize genetic diversity in modern crop breeding to confront the challenges faced by agriculture today, such as climate change and other threats to food security. The event included both keynote speeches and breakout sessions that allowed students to interact directly with scientists and experts. “All of the speakers were very knowledgeable and inspiring. This symposium reinforced my desire to conduct my thesis on a topic related to genetic diversity,” said Mariela, a student at the University of Chapingo.

The speakers included Kevin Pixley, Director of the Genetic Resources Program at CIMMYT and the SeeD initiative; Jim Holland, Professor of Crop Science and Research Geneticist at North Carolina State University (NCSU); Renee Lafitte, research fellow at DuPont Pioneer; Leandro Perugini, research scientist at DuPont Pioneer; Major M. Goodman, member of the national academy of sciences and director of the maize breeding and genetics program at NCSU; and Juan Manuel Hernández Casillas, researcher in genetic resources at the Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Forestales, Agrícolas y Pecuarias (INIFAP).

“This symposium was an excellent opportunity to show students what can be done with genetic diversity—they are the next generation, and they will be the ones responsible for conserving it and utilizing it in the best way possible,” said Hernandez Casillas. “That is why it is so important to implement strategies for the study and investigation of genetic diversity in the present day.”

The student organizers of the event, several of which are conducting research for their theses with scientists from the SeeD initiative, gained important skills in event organization through their participation in the conference. “It was a challenging yet rewarding experience to participate in this symposium on “the other side” for the first time, as organizers. We discovered the incredible amount of tasks to be completed and the difficulty of directing and administrating an event of this kind,” the organizers expressed in a written statement. “However, the experience taught us that despite the difficulty, when you work together as a team with a shared vision, you have the power to take charge of the situation and ensure that everything comes out well.”

Members of the student organizing committee included Juan de Dios Hernández Quintero, Cynthia Ortiz Robles, Víctor Vázquez Pozos, Yadhira del Carmen Ortiz Covarrubias, Noemí Ortega Jiménez, Benjamin Cervantes Romero, David González Dieguez, Maricarmen Sandoval Sánchez, Maria del Pilar Suaste Franco, Viridiana Trejo Pastor and Lourdes Ledesma Ramírez. The students organized the event with the support of Gilberto Salinas, head of capacity development at the Seeds of Discovery (SeeD) initiative, and Tabare Abadie, lead of Research Effectiveness at DuPont Pioneer.

For more information on the symposium, please click here.

Videos of the keynote speeches can be viewed on the CIMMYT youtube channel here.


Genetic bridges to the future

As severe weather and evolving crop diseases threaten farmers’ livelihoods and global food security, scientists are using novel DNA tools and informatics to unearth high-value traits from vast maize and wheat seed collections, for use in breeding climate-resilient varieties to feed the future.

genetic diversity graphic

Ancient Maize Varieties Provide Modern Solution to Tar Spot Complex

By Jennifer Johnson, Terry Molnar and Martha Willcox

Felix Corzo Jimenez , a farmer in Chiapas, Mexico, examines one of his many maize plants infected with tar spot complex.

Felix Corzo Jimenez , a farmer in Chiapas, Mexico, examines one of his many maize plants infected with tar spot complex.

In southern Mexico and Central America a fungal maize disease known as tar spot complex (TSC) is decimating yields, threatening local food security and livelihoods. In El Portillo, Chiapas, Mexico, local farmer Felix Corzo Jimenez surveys his maize field sadly… “It’s been a terrible year. We’ll be lucky if we harvest even 50 percent of our usual yields.” He fingers a dried up maize leaf covered in tiny black dots, and pulls the husk off of an ear to show the shriveled kernels, poorly filled-in. “Tar spot is ruining our crops.”

Named for the telltale black spots that cover infected plants, TSC causes leaves to die prematurely, weakening the plant and preventing the ears from developing fully, cutting yields by up to 50 percent or more in extreme cases. Caused by a combination of 3 fungal infections, the disease occurs most often in cool and humid areas across southern Mexico, Central America and into South America. The disease is beginning to spread, possibly due to climate change, evolving pathogens and susceptible maize varieties, and was reported in important maize producing regions of central Mexico and the northern United States for the first time last fall. To develop the TSC resistant maize varieties that farmers need, the Seeds of Discovery (SeeD) initiative is working to “mine” the CIMMYT genebank for native maize varieties that may hold genes for resistance against the disease.

The CIMMYT Germplasm Bank: Activities and Accomplishments

maize bankThe CIMMYT germplasm bank is the lifeblood of many Seeds of Discovery (SeeD) activities, preserving the genetic diversity that is necessary to develop improved maize and wheat varieties with novel genetic variation to feed a growing population in a changing environment.

The bank contains over 170,000 wheat and 28,000 maize seed collections from across the world. These collections represent the genetic diversity of unique native varieties and wild relatives of maize and wheat and are held under long-term storage for the benefit of humanity in accordance with the 2007 International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The collections are also studied and used as a source of diversity to breed for crucial traits such as heat and drought tolerance, resistance to crop diseases and pests, grain yield productivity and grain quality. Seed is freely shared on request to researchers, students, and academic and development institutions worldwide.wheat slate

To learn more about the history of the CIMMYT germplasm bank, as well as their recent activities and accomplishments, please click here:



If you have ever received seed from the CIMMYT maize germplasm bank, please fill out their customer follow-up survey for the maize germplasm bank here and the wheat germplasm bank here

Graduate students at CIMMYT Organize Genetic Diversity Symposium

simposioCalling all post-graduate students interested in genetic diversity! Graduate students working with The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) will be holding an international symposium, “Genetic Diversity: The key to modern crop improvement and food security,” at CIMMYT headquarters in Texcoco, Mexico on 25 and 26 August. The symposium is open to post-graduate students interested in plant breeding and genetic diversity, and will be held in both Spanish and English with simultaneous translation available.

This event is part of the DuPont Plant Sciences Symposia series, established in 2008, and is one of nearly 20 DuPont Pioneer symposia that will be held this year across the world. Organized for, and by postgraduate students, these symposia allow student organizers to gain valuable skills and experience in event organization. The students are organizing this event with the support of by Gilberto Salinas, head of capacity Development at the Seeds of Discovery (SeeD) initiative, and Tabare Abadie, lead of Research Effectiveness at DuPont Pioneer.

Global science team rescues rare wheat seed from the Fertile Crescent

By Katie Lutz

After wheat seeds are planted in the greenhouse, the samples are then harvested and prepared to be sent to the laboratory for DNA extraction and genotyping. Photographer: CIMMYT/Carolina Sansaloni

After wheat seeds are planted in the greenhouse, the samples are then harvested and prepared to be sent to the laboratory for DNA extraction and genotyping.
Photographer: CIMMYT/Carolina Sansaloni

With Syria torn apart by civil war, a team of scientists in Mexico and Morocco are rushing to save a vital sample of wheat’s ancient and massive genetic diversity, sealed in seed collections of an international research center formerly based in Aleppo but forced to leave during 2012-13.

The researchers are restoring and genetically characterizing more than 30,000 unique seed collections of wheat from the Syrian genebank of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), which has relocated its headquarters to Beirut, Lebanon, and backed up its 150,000 collections of barley, fava bean, lentil and wheat seed with partners and in the Global Seed Vault at Svalbard, Norway.

In March 2015, scientists at ICARDA were awarded The Gregor Mendel Foundation Innovation Prize for their courage in securing and preserving their seed collections at Svalbard, by continuing work and keeping the genebank operational in Syria even amidst war.

“With war raging in Syria, this project is incredibly important,” said Carolina Sansaloni, genotyping and DNA sequencing specialist with the Seeds of Discovery (SeeD) project at the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), which is leading work to analyze the samples and locate genes for breeding high-yield, climate resilient wheats. “It would be amazing if we could be just a small part of reintroducing varieties that have been lost in war-torn regions.”

Mobilizing Gene Bank Biodiversity in the Fight Against Climate Change

Wheat in the field in KazakhstanIn a world where the population is expected to reach 9 billion by the year 2050, grain production must increase to meet rising demand. This is especially true for bread wheat, which provides one-fifth of the total calories consumed by the world’s population. However, climate change threatens to derail global food security, as instances of extreme weather events and high temperatures reduce agricultural productivity and are increasing faster than agriculture can naturally adapt, leaving our future ability to feed the global population uncertain. How can we ensure crop production and food security for generations to come?