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Behind the science: wheat researcher in Kenya screens against devastating disease

By Ma Concepción Castro /CIMMYT

CIMMYT’s sole Kenya-based wheat researcher, Sridhar Bhavani, works in the heart of the center’s efforts to develop wheat resistant to stem rust in Sub-Saharan Africa. CIMMYT works on about 10 different maize projects in Africa and about half as many wheat projects.

Originally from India, Bhavani plays a crucial role in the screening of international nurseries in eastern Africa against Ug99, a stem rust that threatens global wheat production. CIMMYT, in collaboration with the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI) and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), screens more than 50,000 wheat lines each year from all over the world for Ug99 resistance. It also continues shuttle breeding, the innovation created by Norman Borlaug to accelerate breeding gains and broaden the adaptation of wheat varieties.

Sridhar Bhavani (second from right) and his colleagues select for Ug99. Photo: CIMMYT

Bhavani began his career at CIMMYT as a post-doctoral fellow in 2008 and, two years later, became coordinator of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project (DRRW), based in East Africa. The collaborative effort led by Cornell University is based in Kenya – “a key hotspot for screening against Ug99,” Bhavani said.

Ug99 is a race of stem rust first detected in Uganda in 1998 that has caused epidemics from Kenya, Yemen and Sudan all the way to Iran. Its potential spread to the wheat belt of Asia – one of the world’s largest wheat producers – is of great concern, Bhavani said. Farmers in some areas of this region still grow older varieties susceptible to Ug99. He added that through DRRW, CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program (GWP) works to develop and deploy resistant varieties before the pathogen moves into those countries.

Bhavani learned about CIMMYT at the Acharya N.G. Ranga Agricultural University in Hyderabad, India, where he earned a B.Sc. in agriculture. He then earned an M.Sc. in molecular biotechnology at the University of Sydney in Australia. He was familiar with CIMMYT’s work with wheat and Norman Borlaug’s contributions to the Green Revolution.

Following in the footsteps of Ravi Singh, CIMMYT distinguished scientist and wheat breeder, and Sanjaya Rajaram, former director of the GWP, Bhavani studied at the University of Sydney after he was offered a Ph.D. scholarship to characterize genes for rust resistance at the university’s Plant Breeding Institute, which is known worldwide for wheat rust research.

Bhavani works closely with KARI and links with Kenya and the rest of the world. Bhavani and his partners conduct two seasons of screening each year. Since 2006, 300,000 accessions have been screened at KARI. Information collected on stem rust resistance has been utilized to develop better varieties. According to Bhavani, screening in Njoro has resulted in the release of 45 Ug99-resistant varieties.

Shuttle breeding between Mexico and Kenya also incorporates Ug99 resistance in CIMMYT breeding lines. Materials are sent from CIMMYT-Mexico to Kenya and are selected for resistance to Ug99 for two seasons of testing. Bhavani also facilitates gene discovery, characterization, mapping and genomic selection by collaborating with different research institutions. Since 2008, CIMMYT and KARI have released eight varieties that are not only resistant but higher-yielding than older varieties and now occupy between 30 and 40 percent of the total wheat area in Kenya.

CIMMYT-coordinated work in Kenya can be an important platform for addressing other diseases. A similar approach is being used by the Global Maize Program to combat maize lethal necrosis (MLN) by establishing a phenotyping platform in Kenya to screen maize germplasm against MLN.