UKZN Academic Attends ICRISAT Workshop in India
Professor Hussein Shimelis of the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES) was in India to participate in the Product Dissemination Workshop of the USAID-funded project: “Pigeonpea Improvement Using Molecular Breeding”.
The three-year project, which has been implemented by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), is intended to improve the yields and resilience of pigeonpea crops in India and Africa. This legume is a vital part of life for millions of poor people in India’s drylands, both as a staple, nutritious food source and as an avenue of income for farmers.
It is grown on about five million hectares in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and South-Central America, with African countries growing it as an important export crop.
Along with UKZN, other institutions involved include the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) and Acharya NG Ranga Agricultural University (ANGRAU) in India; Ilonga Agriculture Training Institute; the Open University of Tanzania and the Naliendele Agricultural Research Institute in Tanzania; Chitedze Agricultural Research Station in Malawi; Mozambique's Institute of Agricultural Research (IIAM), the University of Education in Ghana and Krishidhan Seeds in India.
Workshop participants interacted directly with farmers and visited pigeonpea fields, taking stock of what the project has achieved thus far. The first phase of the project, which has been completed, involved decoding of the crop’s genome sequence and the isolation of the ideal candidate gene that would enable further breeding, a noteworthy success as this is the first ‘orphan legume’ to have its genome sequence mapped.
Shimelis said there was a need to breed this legume to allow for resilience to fusarium wilt disease and pigeonpea sterility mosaic virus; and to benefit those who rely on this crop, there was a need to breed an early maturing, drought-tolerant variety which had to be a short variety to enable combine harvesting. These needs were significantly influenced by increasing pressure on growers as a result of climate change and a growing population to feed.
The next phase of the project, which requires funding in order to be initiated, would be a translation breeding phase, leading to the development of these cultivars.
Another important part of Phase Two would be the building of capacity of plant breeders working in Asia and Africa. This component of the project has been an important one with Shimelis including his PhD students from Africa in the process.
Participating in this project allows collaborators access to a state-of-the-art training facility and bioinformatics experts, which Africa is lacking. Training students on this kind of project therefore allows for exponential growth in this area as they bring their skills back to Africa to develop the continent.
During the first phase of the project, two students from Africa and six from India were trained in molecular breeding techniques and technology.
Working on this project also enabled Shimelis to contribute as co-author to a work titled Genomics-Assisted Breeding for Boosting Crop Improvement in Pigeonpea (Cajanus cajan)’, which was published in the Frontiers in Plant Science journal in February.