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Partnering to improve tef

Tef is Ethiopia's main cereal crop (Zerihun Tadele)
Tef is Ethiopia's main cereal crop
Zerihun Tadele

Covering more than 2.6 million hectares, tef (Eragrostis tef) is Ethiopia's main cereal crop. With a higher tolerance to extreme conditions such as drought, water-logging and pests and diseases compared to wheat and maize, tef is favoured by millions of Ethiopian smallholder farmers. The seeds are also high in fibre, iron, and protein, and free of gluten, a substance in wheat that people suffering from coeliac disease are allergic to. But compared to other major cereals tef produces very low yields.

The major constraint of tef is a weakness of the stem which causes the plant to fall. A permanent displacement of the stem from the upright position, or lodging, results in considerable harvest losses, reducing both the quality and quantity of harvested grain. The use of nitrogen fertilisers, which weakens the stem further, and mechanised harvesting are also hindered. To increase the productivity of tef, a group of scientists from the Institute of Plant Science based at the University of Bern in Switzerland have teamed up with the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture and Syngenta Switzerland to develop semi-dwarf varieties that will be resistant to lodging and respond to the application of fertiliser.

Enhancing tef

Although tef is adapted to extreme environmental conditions, it has essentially been neglected by the scientific community. As a result this underutilised species ('orphan crop'), has remained largely unimproved. In order to genetically improve tef and produce semi-dwarf varieties, the Tef Biotechnology Project is using the latest biotechnological methods, such as TILLING (Targeting Induced Local Lesions in Genomes).

TILLING is able to identify genes responsible for specific traits, such as plant height, and importantly does not require prior knowledge of the genome sequence. As a result, this technology has enabled scientists to isolate particular genes, identify individual lines with useful mutations, and evaluate their genetic traits. Over 6,000 mutated tef selections are currently being screened for two genes known to influence plant height in related crop species using this method.

Over 6,000 mutated tef selections are currently being screened (Zerihun Tadele)
Over 6,000 mutated tef selections are currently being screened
Zerihun Tadele

In addition to funding from the Syngenta Foundation, the Tef Biotechnology Project also has access to Syngenta's greenhouse facilities in Switzerland, free of charge. "We are able to identify semi-dwarf lines in these modern greenhouses where environmental conditions such as light, temperature and humidity are properly regulated," Dr. Zerihun Tadele, the tef project leader reveals. So far, 6-8 plants have been grown from over 4,000 mutagenised lines, of which ten had inherited the semi-dwarf trait.

"This public-private partnership is very important," Dr Tadele adds. "Private companies, like Syngenta, have a lot of expertise and equipment which are not available in public organisations in developing countries. Our partnership with Syngenta has brought a lot of benefits to the project."

In 2009, seeds from the first set of promising semi-dwarf candidate lines were sent to the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research to be tested in the field and crossed with local cultivars. Seeds from another two will be sent in 2010. Although the semi-dwarf varieties have not yet been released, Dr. Tadele is optimistic that semi-dwarf lines will reach smallholder farmers and significantly increase their yields.

"Most of the tef lines have a weak stem, but the new lines have a special architecture so it doesn't fall," he explains. "If we can prevent lodging, we will increase production by at least two-fold." Once approved, it is the aim of the project to establish sustainable mechanisms, involving local and national organisations, to produce and distribute the seeds.

From strength to strength

Scientists working to improve tef, and other orphan crops, face a lack of genetic information. As a result, after a pilot project in 2009, Dr Tadele and his colleagues launched the Tef Genome Sequencing Project in 2010, with funding from the Syngenta Foundation. While the Functional Genomics Center in Zurich has begun sequencing, the work will be completed at BecA (Biosciences in Eastern and Central Africa), based in Nairobi, as part of the projects strategy to transfer knowledge and technology to Africa.

Semi-dwarf lines (left) have a much stronger stem than traditional varieties (right) (Moritz Jöst)
Semi-dwarf lines (left) have a much stronger stem than traditional varieties (right)
Moritz Jöst

"Sequencing does not just have an academic purpose; we want to apply it also," Tadele states. "Many times we had problems identifying and isolating genes using the TILLING technology, but when we have the genome sequence we can easily isolate the gene."

In addition, tef is a hardy plant, and sequencing the genome could reveal why tef has a higher tolerance than other major crops to drought, water-logging and pests and diseases. When complete, the genome sequence will be made freely available for public use so that it can be used by scientists to identify traits that will directly benefit African farmers.

"I strongly believe that orphan crops, including tef, can alleviate hunger in Africa provided they get proper attention in terms of research and development," Dr Tadele concludes. "But acquiring funding, particularly for an orphan crop, was the main challenge we faced. By partnering with the Syngenta Foundation and the University of Bern our project has enjoyed the use of high-tech techniques in order to improve tef, a disadvantaged crop of Africa in terms of research."

Date published: May 2010


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it is my hope in near future food shortage become history,bu... (posted by: Diriba)


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