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University of East Anglia to help world's poorest farmers

Wed, 21 Nov 2012

The University of East Anglia is part of a £16 million initiative that will harness bioscience to improve food security in developing countries.

Above: Researchers in Nairobi at the BecA-ILRI Hub address key constraints to African agriculture
Credit: David White/BecA-ILRI


Researchers in the school of International Development have joined forces with Norwich Research Park colleagues at the John Innes Centre and the Sainsbury Laboratory to tackle one of wheat’s worst enemies – yellow rust.

They have been awarded £2 million to use new DNA sequencing technologies to develop wheat varieties that are more resistant to the disease.

Wheat is a staple crop across most of the developing world and globally provides about 20 per cent of the calories and proteins consumed by humans. Production needs to increase dramatically to meet the needs of a rapidly growing world population, but disease is a continuing threat.

The yellow rust disease is responsible for yield losses of up to 70 per cent or complete crop loss if the disease occurs early in the growing season.

Breeders and scientists have developed wheat varieties resistant to the disease, but new varieties have not stayed resistant for long. This five-year project aims to tackle this.

The project is led by Dr Cristobal Uauy of the John Innes Centre, working with Dr Brande Wulff at the Sainsbury Laboratory and Dr Shawn McGuire from the University of East Anglia.

Dr McGuire said: “It is exciting to be part of a primarily science-driven programme, which will strengthen the school of International Development’s collaboration with cutting edge science at the Norwich Research Park.

The Genome Analysis Centre, also part of the Norwich Research Park, will carry out much of the sequencing. The consortium of researchers also includes scientists from Ethiopia, India, Kenya and Denmark, as well as the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB).

Using new DNA sequencing technologies and a variety of strains of wheat yellow rust from Africa, India and the UK, the researchers will sequence current and historical collections of yellow rust to understand how the disease has evolved over time and across continents.

This new information at a DNA level will help identify wheat genes best able to resist the pathogen for longer, enabling new varieties of yellow rust resistant wheat to be bred, grown and harvested.

Dr McGuire’s work will focus on the institutional challenges of linking disciplines and research groups in developing-country plant science.

“Though many developing countries have the scientific skills to carry this work forward in their own national systems, few have done so,” he said.

“Partnerships among scientists are key if developing countries are to get hold of these new approaches to crop science. By better understanding the dynamics of these partnerships, we hope to help Kenya build sustainable capacity to address its food security issues using these exciting tools for breeding.”

A total of £16 million has been awarded to 11 new research projects involving 40 international research organisations under the Sustainable Crop Production Research for International Development (SCPRID) programme. The projects aim to develop staple crops better able to resist pests or thrive in harsh environmental conditions.

The grants have been awarded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) under the Sustainable Crop Production Research for International Development (SCPRID) programme, a joint multi-national initiative of BBSRC and the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID), together with (through a grant awarded to BBSRC) the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) of India’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “One billion people currently go to bed hungry every night. By 2050 there will be another two billion mouths to feed. And experts predict the world will need to be able to grow 70 per cent more food.

“The UK’s world class bioscience sector is dedicating vital knowledge and expertise to tackling this global problem. This investment will bring together experts at 14 British Universities and Institutes who will work with famers in Africa and Asia to develop crops that are resistant to disease, pests and drought.

“Farmers need these innovations to protect their own livelihoods and the health of their communities.”
Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, said: “This global collaboration will build on the UK’s world leading position in bioscience and will benefit millions of people through improving food security in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. It will help us share knowledge and forge closer links with the international research community, whilst improving skills and creating jobs in the UK.”

Prof Douglas Kell, BBSRC chief executive, said: “Providing safe, affordable and nutritious food for everyone is one of the greatest challenges we face. This ground-breaking international partnership, of funders and scientists, will ensure that cutting- edge, fundamental bioscience is combined with vital local knowledge to develop sustainable, affordable solutions to increase crop yields and improve global food security.”

The new initiative is being coordinated by BBSRC. The £16M is made up of £3M from BBSRC, £5M from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (through a grant to BBSRC) and £7M from DFID. A further £1M has been provided by the DBT of India’s Ministry of Science and Technology for projects involving India.

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