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UGA plant breeder working to unlock the genetics of finger millet – the orphan crop that feeds millions By Merritt Melancon

Relatively unknown outside of health food stores in the United States, millet has served as a staple food for families in Eastern Africa and Asia for thousands of years.

Despite the grain’s long history and importance to millions of people, there has been little research done on the crop. Katrien Devos, a molecular geneticist at the University of Georgia, is hoping that a recent $1.8 million grant from National Science Foundation (NSF) will help lay the groundwork to make the crop more productive and disease resistant.

Research on this locally important but largely unresearched “orphan crop” could create a more secure food supply for the millions of people who rely on finger millet for the bulk of their daily calories. Devos’ research is being funded through the NSF’s Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development (BREAD) program.

“Working on developing crops can be a struggle because these crops have traditionally received very little attention from funding agencies. On the flip side, because very little breeding and research has been done on finger millet, we expect our efforts to quickly translate into substantial yield gains for farmers,” Devos said. ”The opportunity to make a real difference in people’s lives is what makes this project so exciting.”

Devos is a professor in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Department of Crop and Soil Sciences’ Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics and in the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences Department of Plant Biology. She studies the genetics of a range of economically important plants in the grass family, including finger millet, pearl millet, wheat and switchgrass.

For the finger millet project, Devos will work with a team of geneticists, plant pathologists, bioinformatics experts and plant breeders in the U.S. and in Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia to sequence both the genome of finger millet and that of its primary pathogen – the finger millet blast fungus. The project will also work to decode the interactions of the millet and the fungus on a genetic level.

High-yielding cash crops such as maize were once considered the key to prosperity in the developing world, but the abandonment of traditional crops for maize instead led to food shortages in many regions. National and local initiatives in eastern Africa over the past decade encouraging farmers to replace some of their corn fields with indigenous, drought-tolerant crops have been having marked success. The reintroduction of landrace varieties of millet in eastern African villages improved food security in those villages, but yields are still very low. Hybridization-based breeding of finger millet in eastern Africa only started about two decades ago. Very little research has been done on breeding disease-resistant varieties of millet, and very little research has gone into determining the best production practices, Devos said.

The next step in developing food security in eastern Africa involves improving the yields of drought-tolerant grains to make them reliable, plentiful and more attractive to farmers, Devos said.

Blast fungal disease severely limits the amount of millet that farmers can expect to produce from a single acre. In extreme cases, it can reduce yields by 80 percent, and it’s a major obstacle to improving food security in areas where millet is a staple.

To that end, Devos’ team, including Assistant Professor Chang-Hyun Khang of the UGA Department of Plant Biology, is building on research funded by the biotechnology nonprofit Bio-Innovate Africa and the African Orphan Crops Consortium (ACCO).

The Bio-Innovate Africa and ACCO team, of which Devos was a member, initiated sequencing the genome of finger millet, which has proven to be large and complex. Finger millet is a tetraploid, so it carries two genomes. The two genomes appear to be highly similar in some regions, making it hard to differentiate them using short-read sequencing technologies. Funding through NSF’s BREAD program will allow use of long-read sequencing technologies to overcome these problems and to generate a reference-quality sequence of the finger millet genome. Devos’ lab at UGA has already generated two genetic maps of some 5,000 markers each that provide a framework that geneticists can use to anchor the sequence of millet’s large and complex genome.

“(Existing) initiatives provide a start, but they need to be complemented by additional research to fully achieve the objectives of developing the genetic and genomic tools and knowledge needed to enhance finger millet for blast and other traits, and help lift smallholder farmers out of poverty,” Devos wrote in a project introduction for NSF.

During this effort, they also hope to determine the sections of the genome responsible for resistance or susceptibility to blast, so that resistance can be bred into future varieties of millet.

For more information on Devos’ work, visit research.franklin.uga.edu/devoslab/content/welcome-devos-lab. Learn more about the Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics at www.plantbreeding.uga.edu, and learn more about the Department of Plant Biology at www.plantbio.uga.edu.

(Merritt Melancon is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Finger Millet
Finger Millet

Katrien Devos, a molecular geneticist at the University of Georgia, is hoping that a recent $1.8 million grant from National Science Foundation (NSF) will help lay the groundwork to make the crop more productive and disease resistant.

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Katrien Devos, a molecular geneticist at the University of Georgia, is hoping that a recent $1.8 million grant from National Science Foundation (NSF) will help lay the groundwork to make the crop more productive and disease resistant. Download Image
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