13 April 2017 Volume :5 Issue :21

Doctorate for Ethiopian Plant Breeder

Doctorate for Ethiopian Plant Breeder
Left: PhD graduate Dr Mizan Tesfay Abraha of Ethiopia. Right: Tef growing under dry-land conditions on the outskirts of Axum in northern Ethiopia.

A plant breeder from Ethiopia, Dr Mizan Tesfay Abraha, has been awarded a PhD for her research on Tef (Eragrostis Tef) – a crop of vital importance to food security in Ethiopia, yet one which is notoriously challenging to breed via traditional crossing techniques.

Abraha, who completed her undergraduate and Masters studies at Haramaya University and Jimma University in Ethiopia, chose to pursue her PhD through the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) in UKZN’s School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES) thanks to its excellent PhD programme in plant breeding.

Abraha works at the Tigray Agricultural Research Institute in Ethiopia, where she strives to strengthen Tef breeding research initiatives in her country and beyond. She chose to work on this crop because of its status as the most important, yet severely under-researched, cereal crop in Ethiopia. The crop is becoming increasingly popular thanks to its high nutritional content and gluten-free properties.

Abraha’s study focused on breeding Tef for drought tolerance in a moisture-stressed country faced with a lack of access to water resources. She hopes this will contribute to increased productivity and yield increases in drought-stricken areas. This study involved conducting crosses and extensive evaluation and genetic analyses. Tef is strictly a self-fertilising crop with very small flowers, in which its emasculation and pollination needs to be done under stereo-microscope with a magnification of  >x15.

‘This is an extraordinarily difficult crop to breed because in a whole day of work one can make about three crosses between a male and female parent, working under the microscope,’ said co-supervisor, Professor Mark Laing. ‘This makes it very difficult to do any statistically valid research with large numbers of plants.’

Abraha acknowledged her supervisor, Professor Hussein Shimelis, and co-supervisors Laing and Dr Kebebw Assefa, who is co-ordinator of the Tef research project in Ethiopia, for their support and encouragement during her research, and expressed gratitude to her family for all the support they provided.

Christine Cuénod

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