Crop development efforts get major boost

Scientists combine computing power to help the world's rice, wheat and maize farmers

The long, arduous and expensive process of developing new crop varieties received a major boost this week with the joint launch in Mexico and the Philippines of a new scientific program and facilities that unite key databases and research on the planet's three most important crops, rice, wheat and maize.

A joint venture between two of the world's leading agricultural research centers the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico the new lab and research program were officially launched on Monday via a video conference link between IRRI and CIMMYT. This is the first major output of an alliance between IRRI and CIMMYT that was formally established last year.

The new lab at CIMMYT will link with existing facilities at IRRI and it heralds a new era in rice research, especially in such areas as the development of improved crop varieties. "After several years of talking about a common platform for the development of new rice, wheat or maize varieties, we are now ready for real-world implementation," said IRRI Director General Robert S. Zeigler. "Not only will this reduce the time needed to develop new crop varieties because all three are cereals and so share a range of common characteristics but we also expect it to reduce the cost of such research.

"What is particularly exciting is that this platform will also be useful for other crops often referred to as 'orphans' that have yet to benefit from significant investments in genomics research," Dr. Zeigler added. "And, as we expand our data coverage, research in areas such as natural resource management and climate change will also benefit from our combined capacities."

With the Crop Research Informatics Lab (CRIL), scientists at the new joint facilities are already working on the development of a single crop information system and comparative biology infrastructure for rice, wheat and maize that will greatly assist in the development of new crop varieties. The three staples provide 60 percent of global food needs annually, and cover more than 70 percent of the planet's productive cropping land.

"We're very pleased that the IRRI-CIMMYT Alliance established just a year ago is already achieving such important progress," said CIMMYT Director General Masa Iwanaga. "As we enter the era of genomics research, the efficient and effective management of information, and vitally important databases, is crucial to the ongoing development of new crop varieties."

This collaboration will permit new kinds of comparative biology research to be conducted in collaboration with international partners. In particular, the new joint venture will provide an iterative multidisciplinary research platform that has not been feasible before that will move into uncharted but very exciting scientific territory of comparative biology.

Bioinformatics specialists Guy Davenport from CIMMYT and Richard Bruskiewich from IRRI contend that "Rice forms an ideal model for this research because of its small, sequenced genome. Maize represents an excellent platform for trait studies due to its outbreeding nature and long history of substantial public and private sector investment. Finally, wheat represents a complementary cereal model by virtue of its relatively close relationship to rice and extensive genetic information."

Dr. Jonathan Crouch, director of the Genetic Resources Enhancement Unit at CIMMYT, said, "Tools to facilitate the use of molecular biology to accelerate and focus crop improvement are emerging in several institutions around the world. A major priority for CRIL will be to further develop those strategies and tools to extend them to other crops, and deploy them in international as well as national crop improvement programs focused on developing agricultural needs."

"This system will be especially useful for researchers in poorer, developing countries who may not normally have access to such detailed information on so many different varieties," said Graham McLaren, the head of the CRIL team and IRRI's senior scientist in biometrics.

By adapting software such as the International Crop Information System and the International Rice Information System, CRIL researchers aim to offer plant breeders anywhere working on rice, wheat or maize unprecedented levels of integrated information on all three crops, greatly accelerating the process of developing new varieties.

The groundbreaking IRRI-CIMMYT Alliance is focused on harnessing science to provide the world's millions of poor farmers with improved access to new technologies that will make them more productive and help lift them out of poverty. It's also aimed at developing sustainable solutions to the developing world's urgent need for reliable food supplies.

"We believe the Alliance will not only enhance our vitally important partnerships with the national agricultural research systems of developing countries and advanced research institutions but also strengthen the centers' contribution to the Millennium Development Goals," Dr. Iwanaga said.

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For information, please contact:
Duncan Macintosh,
Spokesperson
IRRI, DAPO Box 7777,
Metro Manila, Philippines;
Tel 632-580-5600; fax: 632-580-5699;
Email: d.macintosh@cgiar.org

Web sites: IRRI Home (www.irri.org), IRRI Library (http://ricelib.irri.cgiar.org), Rice Knowledge Bank (www.knowledgebank.irri.org), Rice facts (www.riceweb.com).

OR

David Mowbray,
Head, Corporate Communications,
CIMMYT
Apdo. Postal 6-641, 06600 Mexico, D.F., Mexico
Tel: 52-555-804-2004
Fax: 52-555-804-7558
Email: d.mowbray@cgiar.org
Web site: CIMMYT Home (www.cimmyt.org)


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