Published on 10/23/03

Researchers out to improve Third World grain crop

By Cat Holmes
University of Georgia

Years of research have gone into America’s “amber waves of grain.” Genetic advances are responsible for crop yields up to five times higher than 50 years ago. But little has been done for staple grains in developing countries.

As a result, some of the world’s poorest farmers grow the least amount of grain. A University of Georgia researcher is out to change that.

Katrien Devos, a UGA plant geneticist, is studying finger millet, a staple crop in the East African countries of Uganda and Kenya, as well as Southern India.

“The problem with these crops is that nobody has put the resources into them,” Devos said.

“Any [research] work that is done will have a major impact on the farmers in these countries,” she said. “These crops are producing nowhere near their yield potential. There is a lot of room for improvement.”

Devos recently received two grants to fund critical genetic work to improve the yield of finger millet, a highly nutritious grain that feeds millions of people.

For one project, funded by the McKnight Foundation, she’s developing tools to be able to take advantage of the research lavished on other crops, such as corn and rice.

Working with other researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the University of Agricultural Sciences, GKVK, in Bangalore, India, she will use information already gathered about disease and drought resistence in other grains to identify similar genes in finger millet.

“For example, a fungus called blast is a major problem for finger millet,” she said. “A very similar fungus also effects rice and has been extensively studied.”

Devos will look at whether the same regions that confer blast resistance in rice correspond to the location of blast genes in finger millet.

“Extrapolation from rice will help us understand the resistance mechanism in finger millet,” she said.

Plants with improved blast resistance can then be bred with varieties that farmers prefer to create hardier plants.

The second project will provide a rudimentary “library” of the genetic markers scientists need to evaluate germ plasm and mine various traits.

To put such a ‘library’ together, scientists must first survey finer millet cultivars, landraces (old varieties that are farmer-selected in areas where local subsistence agriculture has long prevailed) and wild relatives.

Substantial finger millet collections are held in the USDA’s Plant Genetic Resources Conservation Unit at UGA’s Griffin, Ga.,campus and in Kenya and Ethiopia. But little study has been made of these materials.

This project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is a pilot study that will allow scientists to make a beginning. Devos is working with other scientists in Kenya and Uganda on the project.

The information will allow scientists to both improve finger millet crops and integrate finger millet into the cereal comparative genetics community, she said.

“Research on ‘orphan’ crops lacks the glamour of the human genome project so it has been largely neglected by the research community. There’s been a lack of funding,” Devos said.

“The beauty of researching finger millet,” she said, “is that we can make a real difference to the rural poor and subsistence farmers who rely on this crop for their daily food. We’re making a start, but more efforts and resources are needed.”

Cat Holmes is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Cat Holmes was a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.