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UK to Lead $25.5M International Efforts to Improve Staple Crops

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Partners in the UK, the US, and India have pooled together £16 million ($25.5 million) to back a number of international projects that seek to use genomic and genetic research efforts, engineering, and field trials to increase the yield in important crop plants that serve as staples around the world.

More than 40 research organizations will join together to conduct these 11 research projects, which are funded with £7 million from the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), £5 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, £3 million from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and £1 million from India's Ministry of Science, the BBSRC said yesterday.

The 11 research projects will delve into the genomes of rice, wheat, beans, and other crops that are central to the diets of people in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia with the aim of finding genes and markers that could be used to improve drought tolerance, disease and pest resistance, environmental adaptation, and crop yield.

The projects will be coordinated by the BBSRC, which awarded the grants under the Sustainable Crop Production Research for International Development programme.

Each of the projects will engage at least one partner from the UK and one from a developing nation, an approach BBSRC and DFID have used in earlier efforts to help developing countries ramp up their scientific capabilities and help them prepare for other projects.

One group, led by the John Innes Center and includes partners in Denmark, Ethiopia, India, and Kenya, will sequence current and historical collections of a pathogen that causes wheat yellow rust, a disease that can wipe out 70 percent of the yield of wheat crops. They hope this information will help them identify wheat genes that can make the plant resistant to yellow rust.

The University of York will head an effort including collaborators in India and the US that will seek to discover segments of ancestral rice genomes that help them survive droughts. The Indian partner will conduct field trials using hundreds of lines of rice that carry chromosome segments from these wild varieties to see how they perform, and that data will be brought back to the labs for more genetic analyses.

The UK's National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) will work with partners in South Africa, Kenya, and Mexico to run field trials to characterize the genes responsible for resistance to stem rust and yellow rust in wheat so that breeders may try to introduce these genes into new wheat varieties.

The University of Cambridge and the NIAB will collaborate with scientists in the Philippines, Tanzania, and India to use high-throughput sequencing to compare the genetic variation of wild rice and modern rice varieties to find out which genomic regions may be involved in traits for dealing with environmental stresses, such as drought.

Cranfield University, Imperial College London, and the University of Southampton will collaborate with researchers in the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Japan to try to use genomic information to develop rice varieties that are better at taking up zinc from the soil. Zinc deficiencies in humans can lead to serious health problems, and in plants it can limit growth and crop production.

The University of Sheffield and the University of Edinburgh will collaborate with researchers in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Columbia to identify genes in rice that make them resistant to the parasitic witchweed Striga, which can reduce crop yield by as much as 60 or 100 percent. The partners also will conduct field trials to find out how new cultivars incorporating witchweed-resistant genes perform.

The University of Exeter will work with partners in the US, Kenya, Uganda, and Burkina Faso to identify sources of resistance to rice blast, a fungal disease that destroys enough rice to feed 60 million people each year, and to incorporate those genes into new cultivars for use in the field.

The UK's NIAB also will work with collaborators in Uganda to identify varieties of beans that are resistant to root rot, which can stunt bean yields by 70 percent. They plan to study the pathogens that cause root rot and identify beans with natural resistance to them and then work with farmers in Uganda to breed resistant varieties.

A group led by Rothamsted Research and including scientists in Kenya and the US will conduct genetic analysis of maize and sorghum to define genetic markers that can enable breeders to develop varieties that are more resistant to insects called stemborers that can cause crop losses of up to 40 percent.

Partners at the University of Nottingham and the John Innes Center will work with researchers in Australia and India to study genetic variation in wild wheat species to discover genes that make the crop plant more tolerant to abiotic stresses such as drought and to biotic stresses such as pest resistance and diseases.

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