Thursday, 18 July 2013

Day 31 at El Baton - CIMMYT HQ

The final location for this Nuffield Trip is at the Head Quarters of CIMMYT in Texcoco called El Baton.  It is where Dr Borlaug had his office, which now forms a great little museum in his honour.  Norman Borlaug died in 2009 aged 95 and was still involved at CIMMYT until he was 93.  Next year is the anniversary of his 100th birthday so many celebrations are planned!  The meetings that were organised for us today contained may eminent worldwide scientists and we were all very grateful for the time they gave us.
Our first meeting was with an Australian, Dr David Bonnett, who had been working at CIMMYT for the past 5 years.  David's involvement is on the Global Wheat Program as a senior scientist looking a t wheat breeding.  We talked about the aims of the organisation which is to increase food security by increasing farmers efficiency, keeping food affordable to people living in the cities.  This makes sense to me.  If the farmers are more efficient and produce more food their income will remain the same or increase and it will increase supply of food therefore reducing the cost.  It was also interesting to here that by increasing productivity in the developed world it will help the developing world by creating a surplus of food lowering the cost.  Hybridisation of wheat was mentioned as a way of increasing production although very hard to achieve as the male and female parts of the wheat plants are close together. It was also very enlightening to hear that there are more dollars spent in one week on maize research by one company than the global research on wheat!  David also pointed out that about half of the wheat varieties in the developing world come form CIMMYT and that a further 25% of varieties have CIMMYT varieties in their parentage.  There is a huge contribution to modern wheat varieties being developed here.  The double cropping, i.e. planting and harvesting in Obregon and then moving the seed to El Baton is a master stroke to double up the genetic selections of these spring wheats.  Effectively two crops are grown in a every year.  The plants have 2 years of selection this way before being sent to over 200 research centres around the world to make sure they are suitable, in other climates, before returning to El Baton for the final selection.  It is a fascinating process.  Obregon is also key as they can simulate many different climates conditions in one place.  Wheat varieties bred in drought, heat stress and with irrigation mean they get the best genetic potential for many areas around the world from one place.  There are 1.5 and 2.5 million individual plants in the first year of selection, which get whittles down to about 500 over 5 years to be sent out to research centres around the world.
Next up was Dr Gemma Molero who comes from Spain and is working with Matthew Reynolds on a number of projects.
Gemma is currently working on a subject that little is known about, which is all about spikelet photosynthesis.  There is a theory that the awn's and spikelets contribute significantly to yield, but little is known about this.  Gemma is conducting experiments to look at 3D modelling of the spikelet to work out its respiration and how it can photosynthesise.  If these areas of the plant can create starch it could be easily moved to the grain due to its close proximity.  This would require less plant energy to move the carbohydrate in to the stored grain.  There also seems to be a significant correlation between awn length and yield.  It was a great session and one that I will need to go and do some more research on with reference to critical times to manipulate grain sites and grain size.  The genetic potential is to have 11 grain sites per spikelet and in reality we rarely get over 4!
After lunch we met Enrique Autrigue who showed us a presentation on the challenges we face as farmers and breeders over the next few years.  By 2050 wheat yields must increase by 70% across the world.  When the average world wheat yield is 3t/Ha we need to get it to 5T/ha, that is quite an ask especially with the aspects of climate change and water availability looming.  Enrique estimates that 50% of this yield increase will come form plant breeding and 50% will need to come from crop husbandry.  We talked with Enrique about the chromosomes  the wheat plants have and how they were formed many years ago from natural crosses of grasses.  We talked about the major elements that all CIMMYT wheat varieties need to have in them, namely high and stable yield, durable resistance to rusts (UG99), water use efficiency and drought tolerance, heat tolerance and end use quality.  One interesting fact we talked about was water use efficiency (WUE) and irrigated wheat in norther India with flood irrigation needs 1300L of water for every 1Kg of wheat grown.  With new technologies in drip irrigation this can be reduced to 500L/Kg.
Next up was Dr Masahiro Kishii from Japan who is looking at wheat cryogenics.  This is basically crossing wheat with other grass types to through up genetic differences.  It is these differences that the geneticists are looking for to see if they will throw up new and exciting traits.  Masahiro is looking at Ancestral wheat (old cultivars- similar to modern wheat), Alien Species (translocation in from other types further removed from wheat) and even crossing wheat and maize to see what appears.  A good example would be crossing grass species living on sand dunes near the sea.  they would be tolerant to salinity and have good drought resistance but poor yield.  can these genes be selected and bred into modern wheat to provide a higher yielding variety that is more drought tolerant than varieties currently used.
Our last meeting of the day was with Dr Ivan Ortiz-Monasterio who is looking at using remote sensing to gain yield improvements whilst reducing environmental impact.  Ivan has worked out that in area of the Jakie Valley the Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE) can be as low as 31%!  The system of farming here needs to be updated and less nitrogen applied with better accuracy to maintain the same or even better yield.  Ivan has developed the green seeker (as described in an earlier post) and is now looking at ways of using that technology to measure phosphate variability within plants, before stress symptoms are visible to the naked eye.  We talked in depth about thermal imagery and how that can be used to monitor water stress in plants.  As we know water is still the limiting factor to UK yields, so can we try and understand what the plant is going through when it is water stressed? It was a great day today with so much information that needs to be processed over the next few weeks and months, hopefully it will become clearer as time goes on!

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