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Accessing vital knowledge in data: CIMMYT hosts important crop information workshop

One of the most important aspects of any crop breeding program is the collection, storage, retrieval and analysis of data for germplasm (e.g. wheat and maize seed) plant breeders use. This includes phenotypic (physical) and molecular characteristics, as well as their pedigree or ancestry. When a plant breeder is trying to combine useful characteristics to make a potentially useful variety, she has to find parents that are likely to produce offspring with those traits. That is where mining crop information databases is vital.

CIMMYT has been a leader in developing computer-based crop information systems. Now the International Crop Information System, (ICIS) has just held two weeks of meetings at El Batán. More than 40 scientists and data specialists, including a large contingent from the International Rice Research institute (IRRI), participated in the two-week event. The last time the group met at CIMMYT was in 2000.

Addressing the group, CIMMYT senior wheat breeder Richard Trethowan said that vital crop information was in danger of being lost because information systems developed in the past could not cope with the way breeding was being done today. The ICIS system is designed to address this constraint and CIMMYT is now converting its crop data to the new system. “ICIS is broad enough to handle information about a wide range of crops,” says Graham McLaren, the leader of the IRRI-CIMMYT program on research informatics.

The ICIS meeting was divided into two parts. The first week was for users and potential users such as breeders and data curators to learn how to make the best use of the system both in terms of putting in their current data and searching the electronic databases for useful information.

The second week was designed more for the people developing various aspects of the software. They reviewed development progress over the past year and planned activities for the next 12 months. The focus was on the use of ICIS for managing germplasm collections, seed inventories, and genotyping data.

The crop information software is being developed through an open source project and is freely available to institutions and breeders around the world as a global public good. In fact, one of the presentations came from the International Potato Center (CIP). CIP staff in Lima, Peru, were able to participate in the meeting via a video conference link.