The CIMMYT maize germplasm bank holds 28,000 samples of unique maize genetic diversity that could hold the key to develop new varieties farmers need. Photo: Xochiquetzal Fonseca/CIMMYT.
Biodiversity is the building block of health for all species and ecosystems, and the foundation of our food system. A lack of genetic diversity within any given species can increase their susceptibility to stress factors such as diseases, pests, heat or drought as they do not have the genetic variation to respond. In the worst circumstances, this can lead to devastating consequences that include crop failures and extinction of species and plant varieties. Conserving, and utilizing, biodiversity is crucial to ensure the food security, health and livelihoods of future generations.
The 13th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 13) to the Convention on Biological Diversity will be held in Cancun, Mexico from December 5 to 17, 2016. Established in 1993 due to global concerns over threats to biodiversity and species extinctions, the Convention on Biological Diversity is an international legally-binding treaty with three main objectives: the conservation of biological diversity; the sustainable use of the components of biological diversity; and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Mike Listman
Sukhwinder Singh at a field of Punjab Agricultural University, India, with Mexican wheat landrace evaluation trial (foreground) and wheat lines derived from the landraces (background). Photo: Mike Listman
For the first time ever, a research team from China, India, Mexico, Uruguay, and the USA has genetically characterized a collection of 8,400 centuries-old Mexican wheat landraces adapted to varied and sometimes extreme conditions, offering a treasure trove of potential genes to combat wheat’s climate-vulnerability.
Reported today in Nature Scientific Reports and led by scientists from the Seeds of Discovery project (SeeD) at the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the study details critical genetic information about Mexican landraces for use in breeding to boost global wheat productivity.
This is essential, given the well-documented climate effects that imperil key wheat-growing areas, according to scientist Sukhwinder-Singh, SeeD wheat researcher at CIMMYT and corresponding author for the study.
“The landraces, known as Creole wheats, were brought to Mexico as early as the 16th Century,” said Sukhwinder-Singh, who also credited the study to MasAgro, a long-term rural development project between Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture (SAGARPA) and CIMMYT. “Wheat is not native to Mexico, but this gave the Creoles time to toughen in zones where late-season temperatures can hit highs of 40 degrees Centigrade (104 degrees Fahrenheit).”
Heat can wreak havoc with wheat’s ability to produce plump, well-filled grains. Research has shown that wheat yields plummet 6 percent for each 1-degree-Centigrade rise in temperature, and that warming is already holding back yield gains in wheat-growing mega-regions such as South Asia, home to more than 300 million undernourished people and whose inhabitants consume over 100 million tons of wheat each year.
“Typically, massive seed collections constitute ‘black boxes’ that scientists have long believed to harbor useful diversity but whose treasures have remained scarcely utilized, mostly because we have limited information about them,” explains Prashant Vikram, CIMMYT scientist and first author of the report. “New technologies are helping us to shine a light in the dark corners. As part of MasAgro’s ‘Seeds of Discovery Component,’ the team used the latest genotyping-by-sequencing technology and created unique sets of the landrace collections that together capture nearly 90 percent of the rare gene variants, known as ‘alleles.’”
By Jennifer Johnson
Cynthia Ortiz places DNA samples into a thermal cycler in the CIMMYT Biosciences laboratory.
The Seeds of Discovery (SeeD) project seeks to empower the next generation of Mexican scientists to use maize and wheat biodiversity to effectively meet the needs of Mexican agriculture in the future. By providing professional agricultural research and development opportunities for current and future maize and wheat scientists, SeeD works to ensure that the materials they develop will reach those who need them most. For this reason, SeeD is developing a platform of publicly available data and software tools that enable the efficient use of maize and wheat genetic resources. These genetic resources, or biodiversity, include more than 28,000 maize and 140,000 wheat samples, known as accessions, that are conserved in CIMMYT’s seed bank and available to researchers worldwide.
Genetic resources are the raw materials or building blocks used to develop new maize and wheat varieties needed to meet the demands of a growing population in a changing climate. Many of these maize and wheat accessions contain positive traits such as drought tolerance or disease resistance, which, if bred into new varieties, have the potential to improve food security and livelihoods in countries such as Mexico.
However, the specific potential impact of SeeD on Mexican agriculture and society will only be realized if breeders and scientists effectively use the products resulting from the project. By inviting researchers, professors and students to participate in workshops, training courses and diverse research projects, a growing cadre of scientists is learning how to use the databases and software tools developed by SeeD and validating their utility.
“Sharing the knowledge generated by SeeD and making it available to the scientific community will help accelerate the development of new varieties that will benefit long-term food security in Mexico and the world,” said Cynthia Ortiz, a graduate student in biotechnology at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (CINVESTAV) in Mexico City.
Ortiz is conducting research for her Master of Science thesis mentored by SeeD scientist Sukhwinder Singh, who is helping her map the quantitative trait loci (QTL) for phenological and grain yield-related traits in wheat varieties created by crossing synthetic wheat varieties with elite lines. She has participated in two SeeD workshops focusing on wheat phenotyping for heat, drought and yield as well as on the use of the maize and wheat molecular atlas, where she learned to use SeeD software such as Flapjack and CurlyWhirly to visualize the results of genetic diversity analyses.
“The materials SeeD has developed have opened the door for identifying genetic resources with positive traits such as heat and drought tolerance, or resistance to pests and diseases that affect crops all over the world,” Ortiz said. “And the best part is that at the same time, they have sought to protect the genetic diversity of these crops, using the native biodiversity we have in Mexico and the world to confront the challenge of ensuring food security.”
David Gonzalez (L) scores maize plants for signs of tar spot disease alongside SeeD scientist Terence Molnar (R) in the state of Chiapas, Mexico.
David Gonzalez, a recent graduate of the Chapingo Autonomous University in Texcoco, a city about 30 km (20 miles) from Mexico City, agrees. He worked with SeeD scientists Sarah Hearne and Terence Molnar on his Master of Science thesis research, identifying genetic resources with resistance to the maize leaf disease “tar spot complex” (TSC) by using genome-wide association study (GWAS) and genomic selection.
“The software and databases SeeD develops for analyzing genotypic and phenotypic data are novel tools that can be used for research as well as academic purposes,” Gonzalez said. “They are a valuable resource that can be utilized by academic institutions to train students in genetic analysis.”
Gonzalez attended the CIMMYT training course “Technologies for Tropical Maize Improvement,” where he learned about new tools for field trial design, data analysis, doubled haploid technology, molecular markers, GWAS and genomic selection.
“This training, as well as the valuable help and support from CIMMYT scientists, really helped me develop myself professionally,” he said. “It was exciting to work with such an ambitious project, doing things that have never been done before to discover and utilize maize and wheat genetic diversity for the benefit of farmers. I look forward to using what I’ve learned in my future career to develop varieties that meet the needs of farmers in Latin America.”
SeeD is a joint initiative of CIMMYT and the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture (SAGARPA) through theMasAgro project. SeeD receives additional funding from the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize (MAIZE CRP) and Wheat (WHEAT CRP), and from the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).