University of Sydney connection delivers past, present and future wheat at CIMMYT

CIMMYT wheat scientists with connections to the University of Sydney were recently recognized in an issue of Georgika, the newsletter of the University’s Institute of Agriculture. Following is a transcription of the article.

Over the course of several decades, the University of Sydney has been sowing seeds of scientific talent that have taken root at a wheat research centre based halfway around the world: the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), a world-renowned international agricultural research and training non-profit headquartered in Mexico.

CIMMYT’s origins go back to the work of Norman Borlaug, which helped spark the Green Revolution and led to a Nobel Peace Prize. Today, CIMMYT scientists with ties to the University of Sydney are conducting state-of-the-art wheat science that Norman Borlaug might only have dreamed of.

Sanjaya Rajaram is CIMMYT’s most legendary University of Sydney alumnus. Sanjaya, 2014 World Food Prize laureate and 33-year veteran of CIMMYT developed 480 wheat varieties released in 51 countries and served as Director of the Global Wheat Program, received his PhD in plant breeding in the 1960s for a project based in Narrabri.

From legendary breeders to brand-new leaders, the University of Sydney-CIMMYT pipeline appears to be strong and growing. We caught up with a few of the many CIMMYT scientists with ties to the University, to find out how their University connection impacts their work creating the future of wheat.

Ravi Singh

Ravi Singh is a distinguished scientist and head of CIMMYT’s International Wheat Improvement Program, where he has been working for the last 37 years. Ravi earned his doctoral degree from the University of Sydney in genetics of rust resistance in wheat. In this role, his mission is to continue enhancing wheat productivity on 60 million hectares in Asia, Africa and Latin America by developing and distributing new more productive, disease resistant, climate resilient wheat varieties with processing and nutritional qualities to wheat researchers worldwide. Ravi has contributed to the development of more than 550 wheat varieties released by national program partners in many countries, including Australia.

“My University of Sydney scholarship and the opportunity to work under the supervision of Bob McIntosh gave me excellent knowledge of wheat rusts and resistance, which brought me to CIMMYT to continue working on it when I joined in 1983. Breeding rust resistant varieties with other necessary traits became a passion for me and that is what I do nowadays,” Ravi said.

Sridhar Bhavani

Sridhar Bhavani received a master’s degree in Molecular Biotechnology and a doctoral degree in Wheat Rust Genetics and Breeding from the University of Sydney. As the head of rust research at CIMMYT, Sridhar Bhavani’s objective is to develop improved bread and durum wheat germplasm with durable resistance to the three rust diseases: leaf rust, yellow rust and stem rust. This involves dissecting the genetic components of resistance in a wide range of germplasm to better understand the genetic architecture of the trait, developing breeder friendly markers for trait introgression, coordinating the rust phenotyping platforms and working closely with the global rust reference centers on improved survey and surveillance and capacity building of national programs.

Sridhar Bhavani visits PBI-University of Sydney experimental fields in 2018 with Dr. Harbans Bariana and Dr. Urmil Bansal. Photo courtesy of Sridhar Bhavani.

Sridhar’s 12-year collaboration with the University of Sydney’s Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) continues to this day with PBI projects on wheat and barley with the Australian Cereal Rust Control Program; and with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)-University of Sydney molecular marker program, funded by the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).

During his academic career at the University, Sridhar was awarded a Faculty of Science Student Fellowship for his master’s degree research and the Thomas Lawrence Pawlett Scholarship for his doctoral research.

“The Plant Breeding Institute, University of Sydney has been instrumental in honing my theoretical and technical skills during my PhD study,” Sridhar said. “It was a rewarding experience working with eminent rust researchers. PBI has a wide network of collaborations both with CGIAR centers and advanced research institutes and universities, providing opportunities for students to conduct research at other centers. It still continues to be a hub for training young researchers from all over the world on cereal rusts.”

Alison Bentley

Alison Bentley is one of the newest University alumni to join CIMMYT, taking over as Director of the Global Wheat Program in November 2020. Alison earned both a BScAgr and a PhD at the University of Sydney.  Prior to joining CIMMYT, Alison was the director of Genetics and Breeding at the UK National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB),working on wheat pre-breeding and trait genetics. She serves as the UK representative on the International Wheat Initiative Scientific Committee, and is a committee member for the Genetics Society, the UK Plant Sciences Federation, the Society of Experimental Botany, and the Editorial Board of Heredity.

CIMMYT Global Wheat Program Director Alison Bentley at her undergraduate graduation with Professor Lester Burgess. Photo courtesy of Alison Bentley.

“My research centres on the major questions of how to mobilize new scientific tools and technologies to accelerate wheat breeding, how better to adapt wheat to increasing seasonal instability and how to optimise input use in cereal-based cropping systems. These research areas are closely aligned with the work of the Global Wheat Program at CIMMYT and I am really looking forward to working with the incredible team to continue to use research and breeding to drive wheat breeding gains and their associated impacts.”

Alison “hugely enjoyed” her time as an undergrad and postgrad student at Sydney; particularly noting the “welcoming, friendly, and collaborative environment in which to discover things.”

“Questions were always encouraged (at all levels) and staff were always happy to share opinions (not always positive, but always constructive).”

Alison’s relationship with the university began a weekend event hosted at PBI Cobbitty for high school students interested in agriculture. The opportunity to have hands-on experience extracting DNA, touring facilities and hearing from plant breeders and other scientists inspired her to pursue her education there, a decision with lifelong impacts.

“I enjoyed the focus on application of science into practice, which I have carried forward in my career.”

“Sydney Uni was also a great environment to combine different interests and gave me the opportunity to play international sport whilst studying as well as to travel and enhance both my personal and professional development. This was very important for developing my understanding of how to work with others and to lead and manage diverse teams.”

Alison Bentley during undergraduate field work in Central Australia. Photo courtesy of Alison Bentley.

Mandeep Randhawa

Mandeep Randhawa earned his doctoral degree in Wheat Rust Pathology, Molecular Genetics and Breeding from University of Sydney. Mandeep currently manages and organizes the operational activities of the International Stem Rust Phenotyping Platform led by CIMMYT and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) in Njoro, Kenya.

Mandeep Randhawa in the field making wheat crosses (background PBI Cobbitty building). Photo courtesy of Mandeep Randhawa.

“In a nutshell, I contribute to rust research through identification and characterization of new sources of rust resistance, development of breeder friendly markers, transfer of rust resistance genes in breeding lines, field evaluation of germplasm accessions (wheat, durum, barley and oat) from various countries, and facilitating delivery of improved high yielding wheat lines for identification and release in the country. I also promote biofortified wheat lines in the region and conduct monitoring and early warning through improved rust surveys and surveillance, and capacity building through annual training courses and supervising students,” Mandeep explained.

Mandeep’s association with the University of Sydney began with his contribution to an Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR)-funded India-Australia collaborative research project on molecular marker technologies for faster wheat breeding in India, led by Sydney’s Richard Trethowan. From there, Mandeep was awarded the John Allwright Fellowship from ACIAR to pursue his PhD at Sydney, where his studies covered genetic characterization and mapping of rust resistance genes to facilitate their marker-assisted transfer into Indian and Australian wheat cultivars.

His collaboration with the Plant Breeding Institute Cobbitty continues at CIMMYT, with GRDC-funded joint wheat rust projects with the Institute and CSIRO.

“The Plant Breeding Institute Cobbitty is considered a ‘Mecca’ of cereal rust research. It was an honour and privilege to work, learn and conduct research with the support and mentorship of well-known scientists in cereal rust research” such as Drs. Urmil Bansal, Harbans Bariana and Richard Trethowan, he said. “My interdisciplinary training –in pathology, molecular genetics and breeding for disease resistance – at Sydney has equipped me with skills and capabilities to pursue my current role.”

Naeela Qureshi

Naeela Qureshi earned a doctoral degree in Molecular Genetics/Plant Breeding and Pathology from the University of Sydney and worked as a Research Associate at the Plant Breeding Institute. Naeela recently joined CIMMYT as an Associate Scientist in wheat rust molecular genetics and pathology, where she focuses on identifying and characterizing new sources of rust resistance genes and developing breeder friendly molecular markers linked with various rust resistance genes to facilitate marker-assisted breeding.

She is recipient of the early career award from International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC), the Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum (WIT) award, and the USDA Borlaug Fellowship — but before these recognitions, she received the University of Sydney International Scholarship and Australian Endeavour Award that led her to her PhD.

After earning her doctoral degree in Molecular Genetics/Plant Breeding and Pathology, Naeela then became a PBI Research Associate working on discovery, characterization and molecular mapping of rust resistance genes. And, in a third role, Naeela went on to providing next-generation sequencing platforms to PBI collaborators at Agriculture Victoria Research.

“PBI played a very significant role in shaping and developing my capabilities in wheat rust research,” Naeela said. “All my practical and academic research skills in wheat rust discipline comes from PBI and my supervisors, Dr. Urmil Bansal and Dr. Harbans Bariana.

 “I am looking forward to collaborating with University of Sydney researchers in the future under joint projects with CIMMYT,” Naeela said, echoing her CIMMYT colleagues.

Other Sydney alumni who have worked at CIMMYT include former CIMMYT wheat breeder David Bonnett and durum wheat and maize pathologist Sandro Loladze.

Richard Trethowan, undergraduate and postgraduate alumnus of the Faculty of Agriculture and now Professor of Plant Breeding and Director of the PBI, spent 13 years at CIMMYT and was the Principal Scientist and Head of Global Bread Wheat Breeding for Rainfed Areas.

Press Release: “Historic” release of six improved wheat varieties in Nepal

 High-zinc and climate resilient varieties poised to boost production for farmers and nutrition for consumers

One of the newly-released biofortified wheat varieties, NL 1369 (Zinc Gahun-2), in the field. Photo: NARC

Kathmandu (Nepal) December 11, 2020

The Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC) announced the release of six new wheat varieties for multiplication and distribution to the country’s wheat farmers, offering increased production for Nepal’s nearly one million wheat farmers and boosted nutrition for its 28 million wheat consumers.

The varieties, which are derived from materials developed by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), include five bred for elevated levels of the crucial micronutrient zinc,  and Borlaug 100, a variety well known to be high yielding, drought and heat resilient, and resistant to wheat blast, as well as high in zinc.

 “Releasing six varieties in one attempt is historic news for Nepal,” said CIMMYT Asia Regional Representative and Principal Scientist Arun Joshi.

“It is an especially impressive achievement by the NARC breeders and technicians during a time of COVID-related challenges and restrictions,” said NARC Executive Director Deepak Bhandari.  

“This was a joint effort by many scientists in our team who played a critical role in generating proper data, and making a strong case for these varieties to the release committee, ” said Roshan Basnet, Head of the National Wheat Research Program based in Bhairahawa, Nepal, who was instrumental in releasing three of the varieties, including Borlaug 2020.

“We are very glad that our hard work has paid off for our country’s farmers,” said Dhruba Thapa, Chief and wheat breeder at the National Plant Breeding and Genetics Research Centre, NARC.

Nepal produces 1.96 million tons of wheat on more than 750,000 hectares, but its wheat farmers are mainly smallholders with less than 1-hectare holdings and limited access to inputs or mechanization. In addition, most of the popular wheat varieties grown in the country have become susceptible to new races of wheat rust diseases.  

The new varieties — Zinc Gahun 1, Zinc Gahun 2, Bheri-Ganga, Himganga, Khumal-Shakti, and Borlaug 2020 — were bred and tested in a “fast-track” approach, with CIMMYT and NARC scientists moving material from trials in CIMMYT’s research station in Mexico to multiple locations in Nepal and other Target Population of Environments (TPEs) for testing. 

“Thanks to a big effort from Arun Joshi and our NARC partners we were able to collect important data in first year, reducing the time it takes to release new varieties,” said CIMMYT Head of Wheat Improvement Ravi Singh.

The varieties are tailored for conditions of a range of wheat growing regions in the country – from the hotter lowland, or Terai, regions to the irrigated as well as dryer mid- and high-elevation areas – and for stresses including wheat rust diseases and wheat blast. The five high-zinc, biofortified varieties were developed through conventional crop breeding by crossing modern high yielding wheats with high zinc progenitors such as landraces, spelt wheat and emmer wheat.   

 “Zinc deficiency is a serious problem in Nepal, with 21% of children found to be zinc deficient in 2016. Biofortification of staple crops such as wheat is a proven method to help reverse and prevent this deficiency, especially for those without access to a more diverse diet,” said CIMMYT Senior Scientist and wheat breeder Velu Govindan, who specializes in breeding biofortified varieties.

Borlaug 2020 is equivalent to Borlaug 100, a highly prized variety released in 2014 in Mexico to commemorate the centennial year of Nobel Peace laureate Dr. Norman E. Borlaug.  Coincidently, its release in Nepal coincides with the 50th anniversary of Borlaug’s Nobel Peace Prize.

NARC staff have already begun the process of seed multiplication and conducting participatory varietal selection trials with farmers, so very soon farmers throughout the country will benefit from these seeds.

“The number of new varieties and record release time is amazing,” said Joshi. “We now have varieties that will help Nepal’s farmers well into the future.”

CIMMYT breeding of biofortified varieties was funded by HarvestPlus. Variety release and seed multiplication activities in Nepal were supported by NARC and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) through collaboration with ADB Natural Resources Principal & Agriculture Specialist Michiko Katagami. This NARC-ADB-CIMMYT collaboration was prompted by World Food Prize winner and former HarvestPlus CEO Howarth Bouis, and provided crucial support that enabled the release in record time.

— ENDS —


Variability Study of Biofortified Bread Wheat Genotypes for Grain Zinc and Iron Concentration, Yield and Yield Associated Traits at Khumaltar, Lalitpur, Nepal.


Arun Joshi, Asia Regional Representative and Principal Scientist, CIMMYT


Marcia MacNeil, Communications Officer, CIMMYT


The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is the global leader in publicly-funded maize and wheat research and related farming systems. Headquartered near Mexico City, CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, thus improving global food security and reducing poverty. CIMMYT is a member of the CGIAR System and leads the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize and Wheat and the Excellence in Breeding Platform. The Center receives support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies. For more information, visit


Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC) was established in 1991 as an autonomous organization under the Nepal Agricultural Research Council Act – 1991 to conduct agricultural research in the country to uplift the economic level of Nepalese people.


The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. It assists its members and partners by providing loans, technical assistance, grants, and equity investments to promote social and economic development.

This research is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

Press release: Landmark study generates genomic atlas for global wheat improvement

CIMMYT contributes to sequencing genomes of 15 wheat varieties around the world

Photo: Flickr/Saad Ahktar

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (Canada), November 25, 2020.

In a landmark discovery for global wheat production, an international team led by the University of Saskatchewan (USask) and including scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) has sequenced the genomes for 15 wheat varieties representing breeding programs around the world, enabling scientists and breeders to much more quickly identify influential genes for improved yield, pest resistance and other important crop traits.

The research results, just published in Nature, provide the most comprehensive atlas of wheat genome sequences ever reported. The 10+ Genome Project collaboration involved more than 95 scientists from universities and institutes in Canada, Switzerland, Germany, Japan, the U.K., Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Israel, Australia, and the U.S.

“It’s like finding the missing pieces for your favorite puzzle that you have been working on for decades,” said project leader Curtis Pozniak, wheat breeder and director of the USask Crop Development Centre (CDC). “By having many complete gene assemblies available, we can now help solve the huge puzzle that is the massive wheat pan-genome and usher in a new era for wheat discovery and breeding.”

“These discoveries pave the way to identifying genes responsible for traits wheat farmers in our partner countries are demanding, such as high yield, tolerance to heat and drought, and resistance to diseases and pests including wheat blast,” said Ravi Singh, head of global wheat improvement at CIMMYT and a study co-author.

One of the world’s most cultivated cereal crops, wheat plays an important role in global food security, providing about 20 per cent of human caloric intake globally. It’s estimated wheat production must increase by more than 50 per cent by 2050 to meet an increasing global demand.

The study findings build on the  first complete wheat genome reference map published by the  International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium in 2018,  increasing the number of wheat genome sequences almost 10-fold, and allowing scientists to identify genetic differences between wheat varieties.

The research team was also able to track the unique DNA signatures of genetic material incorporated into modern cultivars from wild wheat relatives over years of breeding.

“With partners at Kansas State University, we are very excited to leverage these genomic resources for genomics-assisted wheat breeding at CIMMYT” said Philomin Juliana, CIMMYT wheat breeder and study co-author.

 “This study has also provided the complete assembly of a wheat chromosomal segment called Vpm-1, which is derived from a wild wheat relative and has been consistently associated with high grain yield in the CIMMYT germplasm. This is a key milestone, given that this chromosomal segment is now present in more than 90% of the elite spring wheat lines distributed internationally by CIMMYT.”

The team also used the genome sequences to isolate an insect-resistant gene (called Sm1) that enables wheat plants to withstand the orange wheat blossom midge, a pest which causes millions of dollars in losses to wheat producers each year.  

“Understanding a causal gene like this is a game-changer for breeding because you can select for pest resistance more efficiently by using a simple DNA test than by manual field testing,” Pozniak said.

The 10+ Genome Project was sanctioned as a top priority by the Wheat Initiative, a coordinating body of international wheat researchers.

“This project is an excellent example of coordination across leading research groups around the globe.  Essentially every group working in wheat gene discovery, gene analysis and deployment of molecular breeding technologies will use the resource,” said Wheat Initiative Scientific Coordinator Peter Langridge.

Read the full press release from the University of Saskatchewan.

A list of international funding partners is available here:                           


The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is the global leader in publicly-funded maize and wheat research and related farming systems. Headquartered near Mexico City, CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, thus improving global food security and reducing poverty. CIMMYT is a member of the CGIAR System and leads the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize and Wheat and the Excellence in Breeding Platform. The Center receives support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies. For more information, visit

About the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre (CDC)

The Crop Development Centre in the USask College of Agriculture and Bioresources is known for research excellence in developing high-performing crop varieties and developing genomic resources and tools to support breeding programs.  Its program is unique in that basic research is fully integrated into applied breeding to improve existing crops, create new uses for traditional crops, and develop new crops. The CDC has developed more than 400 commercialized crop varieties.


Multiple Wheat Genomes Reveal Global Variation in Modern Breeding


Marcia MacNeil, Communications Officer, CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, CIMMYT.

Victoria Dinh, Media Relations, Univeristy of Saskatchewan,, +01 306-966-5487

CIMMYT wheat research recognized for impact through highly-cited papers

Photo: Flickr/Tobias von der Haar

Three scientists working on wheat research with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) have been recognized as 2020 recipients of the Clarivate™ Highly Cited Researchers list.

The honor recognizes exceptional research performance demonstrated by the production of multiple papers that rank in the top 1 percent by citations for field and year, according to the Web of Science citation indexing service.

Called a “who’s who” of influential researchers, the list draws on data and analysis performed by bibliometric experts and data scientists at the Institute for Scientific Information™ at Clarivate.

The 2020 CIMMYT honorees include:

  • Julio Huerta: CIMMYT-seconded wheat breeder and rust geneticist with Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Forestales, Agrícolas y Pecuarias (INIFAP)
  • Matthew Reynolds: CIMMYT Distinguished Scientist, wheat physiologist and member, Mexican Academy of Sciences
  • Ravi Singh: CIMMYT Distinguished Scientist and Head of Bread Wheat Improvement

“I congratulate my colleagues in the Global Wheat Program for this excellent recognition of their important work,” said incoming CIMMYT Global Wheat Program Director Alison Bentley.

Two Highly Cited Researcher certificates

The full 2020 Highly Cited Researchers list and executive summary can be found here.  

International Wheat Yield Partnership launches European Winter Wheat Hub

New hub joins existing network of large translational pipelines operating on spring wheat at CIMMYT in Mexico

Winter wheat. Photo: Flickr/pepperberryfarms

This press release was originally posted on the website of the International Wheat Yield Partnership.

Building on a wealth of existing investment in UK wheat research and development, including the UK Research and Innovation BBSRC-funded Designing Future Wheat programme (DFW), the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP) has formed a new European Winter Wheat Hub that will accelerate research discoveries from the UK and globally into commercial plant breeding.

A public-private partnership, the IWYP-European Winter Wheat Hub will combine novel traits discovered by collaborative international teams into a range of high performing European winter wheat genetic backgrounds for assessment and use in winter wheat breeding programs.

The global agriculture companies BASF, KWS, RAGT and Syngenta, in collaboration with the UK National Institute for Agricultural Botany (NIAB), will provide a translational pipeline supporting European winter wheat improvement. In partnership with IWYP, commercial breeders will select key genetic discoveries of potential value for the European wheat community from global IWYP research projects. NIAB will then use its
expertise in pre-breeding to produce genetic material for the validation and development of selected IWYP research outputs.

Joining the wider existing IWYP Hub Network of large translational pipelines operating on spring wheat at CIMMYT (the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre) in Mexico and the recently established NIFA-IWYP Winter Wheat Breeding Innovation Hub at Kansas State University, USA, the IWYP-European Winter Wheat Hub will ensure that cutting-edge discoveries are rapidly available to both the participating wheat breeders and to the global wheat breeding community.

“This is another excellent example of how public-private partnerships (such as the DFW, the Wheat Initiative and IWYP) can work well at both the international and national level,” said Dr. Chris Tapsell from KWS, who is leading the IWYP-European Winter Wheat Hub development.

“And this hub will help ensure that the hard work of the IWYP researchers around the world will deliver impacts that address the twin challenges of increasing wheat production for food security whilst protecting the environment.”

Jeff Gwyn, who leads the IWYP program said, “The addition of this new hub further strengthens the IWYP Hub Network and enables the development of our innovations to reach a wider industry base more rapidly. It is critical for IWYP to have its research outputs taken up and utilized for the public good. Public-private partnerships such as this further demonstrate that the IWYP initiative is filling a significant gap and creating value.”

Tina Barsby, CEO of NIAB commented, “NIAB has a strong track record in pre-breeding of wheat and particularly in working closely with commercial breeders to bring new variability to the market. We are really looking forward to helping to advance IWYP project traits into breeding programs.”

For further information about the IWYP-European Winter Wheat Hub please contact Chris Tapsell (KWS):

For further information about IWYP please contact Jeff Gwyn (IWYP):

The IWYP program is based on an innovative model for public funding and international scientific collaboration to address the global grand challenge of food, nutritional and economic security for the future. The model employs public-private partnerships to scale and drive its research innovations for impact. Operations require active coordination of the international research and development teams whose discovery research focuses on complementary and overlapping sets of potentially high impact novel trait targets deemed likely to underpin yield increases, such as the regulation of photosynthesis, optimal plant architecture, plant biomass
distribution, and grain number and size. As the results emerge, it is possible to envisage how to combine them and therefore simultaneously remove multiple constraints affecting yields in farmers’ fields.

NIAB is an independent plant biosciences organisation working to translate fundamental research into innovative solutions and products for the agricultural sector. The IWYP-European Winter Wheat Hub will leverage established expertise in wheat genetics and breeding at NIAB, including newly developed glasshouse and molecular laboratory facilities.

BASF, KWS, RAGT and Syngenta are innovation-led leaders in the wheat breeding industry, developing varieties that deliver consistent year-on-year genetics gain for the benefit of wheat growers throughout Europe and North America. All companies are active members of IWYP and launched this initiative to speed up and ensure the effective utilisation of deliverables from IWYP research projects, which are funded by partners across the globe including the BBSRC in the UK.

CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) is a non-profit international agricultural research and training organization focusing on two of the world’s most important cereal grains: maize and wheat, and related cropping systems and livelihoods.

The “hidden backbone of rural farming:” Insights from COVID-19 impacts on female dryland farmers

To mark the International Day of Rural Women, we share findings from our partners at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). The following is excerpted from a post by ICARDA Gender Scientist Dina Najjar and University of Western Ontario Professor Bipasha Baruah.

The 2020 International Day of Rural Women’s theme is “Building rural women’s resilience in the wake of COVID-19.” Through a survey carried out with 100 male and 100 female dryland farmers in rural Egypt and Tunisia, we examine how COVID-19 affected them, and the coping mechanisms they employed to maintain crop and livestock supplies, sales, market connections, and personal wellbeing.

The study uncovers the often undervalued and hidden contribution that women make to rural dryland farming practices. It suggests that building women’s resilience to the impact of COVID-19 and even afterward, through better transport, consistent and affordable supplies of feedstock and other agricultural inputs, digital access, and on domestic issues, is a good place to start for strengthening the resilience of households and whole communities. Given the global resurgence of COVID-19 and its expected long-term effects, now, more than ever, we should not overlook what women are already offering.

Read the full study summary here.

This research is funded by the UN IFAD CLCA Phase II project, mapped to the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) and the CGIAR Research Programs on Policies, Institutions and Markets (PIM) and Livestock.

Researchers in Zambia confirm: Wheat blast has made the intercontinental jump to Africa

Wheat blast in experimental plots (Photo: Batiseba Tembo, ZARI)

Wheat blast, a fast-acting and devastating fungal disease, has been reported for the first time on the African continent, according to a new article published by scientists from the Zambian Agricultural Research Institute (ZARI), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the US Department of Agriculture – Foreign Disease Weed Science Research Unit (USDA-ARS) in the scientific journal PLoS One.

Symptoms of wheat blast first appeared in Zambia during the 2018 rainy season in experimental plots and small-scale farms in the Mpika district, Muchinga province.

Wheat blast poses a serious threat to rain-fed wheat production in Zambia and raises the alarm for surrounding regions and countries on the African continent with similar environmental conditions. Worldwide, 2.5 billion consumers depend on wheat as a staple food, and in recent years, several African countries have been actively working towards reducing dependence on wheat imports.

“This presents yet another challenging biotic constraint to rain-fed wheat production in Zambia,” said Batiseba Tembo, wheat breeder at ZARI and lead scientist on the study.

A difficult diagnosis

“The first occurrence of the disease was very distressing. This happened at the spike stage, and caused significant losses,” said Tembo. “Nothing of this nature has happened before in Zambia.”

Researchers were initially confused when symptoms of the disease in the Mpika fields were first reported. Zambia has unique agro-climatic conditions, particularly in the rainfed wheat production system, and diseases such as spot blotch and Fusarium head blight are common.

“The crop had silvery white spikes and a green canopy, resulting in shriveled grains or no grains at all…Within the span of 7 days, a whole field can be attacked,” said Tembo. Samples were collected and analyzed in the ZARI laboratory, and suspicions grew among researchers that this may be a new disease entirely.

Wheat blast in a farmer’s field in Mpika district, 2020 (Photo: Batiseba Tembo, ZARI)

A history of devastation

Wheat blast, caused by Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype Triticum (MoT), was initially discovered in Brazil in 1985, and within decades had affected around 3 million hectares of wheat in South America alone. The disease made its first intercontinental jump to Asia in 2016, causing a severe outbreak in Bangladesh, reducing yield on average by as much as 51% in the affected fields.

The disease has now become endemic to Bangladesh, and has potential to expand to similar warm, humid and wet environments in nearby India and Pakistan, as well as other regions of favorable disease conditions.

Wheat blast spreads through infected seeds and crop residues as well as by spores that can travel long distances in the air. The spread of blast within Zambia is indicated by both mechanisms of expansion.

Developing expert opinions

Tembo participated in the Basic Wheat Improvement Course at CIMMYT in Mexico, where she discussed the new disease with Pawan Singh, head of Wheat Pathology at CIMMYT.  Singh worked with Tembo to provide guidance and the molecular markers needed for the sample analysis in Zambia, and coordinated the analysis of the wheat disease samples at the USDA-ARS facility in Fort Detrick, Maryland.

All experiments confirmed the presence of Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype Triticum (MoT).

“This is a disaster which needs immediate attention,” said Tembo. “Otherwise, wheat blast has the potential to marginalize the growth of rain-fed wheat production in Zambia and may threaten wheat production in neighboring countries as well.”

Wheat blast observed in Mpika, Zambia  (Photo: Batiseba Tembo, ZARI)

A cause for innovation and collaboration

CIMMYT and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) are taking action on several fronts to combat wheat blast. Trainings, such as an international course led by the Bangladesh Wheat and Maize Research Institute (BWMRI) in collaboration with CIMMYT, WHEAT and others, invite international participants to gain new technical skills in blast diagnostics and treatment and understand different strategies being developed to mitigate the wheat blast threat. WHEAT scientists and partners are also working quickly to study genetic factors that increase resistance to the disease and develop early warning systems, among other research interventions. 

“A set of research outcomes, including the development of resistant varieties, identification of effective fungicides, agronomic measures, and new findings in the epidemiology of disease development will be helpful in mitigating wheat blast in Zambia,” said Singh.

Tembo concluded, “It is imperative that the regional and global scientific community join hands to determine effective measures to halt further spread of this worrisome disease in Zambia and beyond.”

Read the study:

Detection and characterization of fungus (Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype Triticum) causing wheat blast disease on rain-fed grown wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) in Zambia

Interview opportunities:

Pawan Kumar Singh, Senior Scientist and Head of Wheat Pathology (CIMMYT)

Batiseba Tembo, Wheat Breeder, Zambian Agricultural Research Institute (ZARI)

For more information, or to arrange interviews, contact the media team:

Rodrigo Ordóñez, Communications Manager (CIMMYT)


Financial support for this research was provided by the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute (ZARI), the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), and the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS). 

The Basic Wheat Training Program and Wheat Blast Training is made possible by support from investors including ACIAR, WHEAT, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Krishi Gobeshona Foundation (KGF), the Swedish Research Council (SRC) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

About Accelerating Genetic Gains in Maize and Wheat for Improved Livelihoods

Accelerating Genetic Gains in Maize and Wheat for Improved Livelihoods (AGG) is a 5-year project that brings together partners in the global science community and in national agricultural research and extension systems to accelerate the development of higher-yielding varieties of maize and wheat — two of the world’s most important staple crops.  Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), AGG fuses innovative methods that improve breeding efficiency and precision to produce and deliver high-yielding varieties that are climate-resilient, pest- and disease-resistant, highly nutritious, and targeted to farmers’ specific needs.


The International Maize and What Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is the global leader in publicly-funded maize and wheat research and related farming systems. Headquartered near Mexico City, CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, thus improving global food security and reducing poverty. CIMMYT is a member of the CGIAR System and leads the CGIAR programs on Maize and Wheat and the Excellence in Breeding Platform. The Center receives support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies. For more information visit

A “track record of delivering local solutions with a global perspective:” Review confirms impact and importance of WHEAT research
Wheat trainees and CIMMYT staff examine wheat plants in the field at the experimental station in Toluca, Mexico. Credit: CIMMYT / Alfonso Cortés

The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) has “a track record of delivering local solutions with a global perspective — and is well positioned to continue this trajectory in the next decade.”

This was a key finding of a recent review of the program aimed to assess WHEAT’s 2017-2019 delivery of quality science and effectiveness, as well as to provide insights and lessons to inform the program’s future.

“Wheat as a crop is bound to be central to global food security in the foreseeable future,” the reviewers stated.

The crop currently contributes 20% of the world population’s calories and protein—and global demand is estimated to increase by 44% between 2005-07 and 2050.

WHEAT — led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) as a key research partner —has two pillars that are essential to meeting this demand: raising potential yield through breeding and closing the yield gap through sustainable intensification at field, farm and landscape scales.

Key recommendations included supporting strategic investment in research partner network development and maintenance, and continuing WHEAT’s trajectory towards modernizing breeding processes and integrating sustainable intensification approaches, including mechanization.

The reviewers warned of challenges for the way ahead, pointing out that partnerships — and WHEAT’s reputation as a reliable partner — are vulnerable to funding volatility. The review also raised concerns about the potential fragmentation of the global breeding program, restrictions to the international exchange of germplasm and ideas, “misguided” emphasis on minor crops, and CGIAR’s “focus on process at the expense of results.”

“This review cuts to the core of what’s so critical—and at risk – not only with our program but wheat research in general,” said Hans Braun, director of the CIMMYT Global Wheat Program and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat. “Global collaboration and the exchange of improved seeds, data, and especially information.”

“The reviewers rightly point out that limited resources will lead to competition and dampen this collaboration—even between scientists in the same program. We must address this potential risk to improve integration and continue our life saving work.” 

“In most of the developing world, the alliance of public sector and CGIAR wheat breeding programs, as well as some national public breeding programs on their own, will remain dominant providers of wheat varieties, until either functioning seed royalty collection systems are established and/or hybrid wheat becomes a reality,” he added.

WHEAT’s strength is its robust global network of research for development partners and scientists linked to global breeding in a ‘wide adaptation’ approach,” said Victor Kommerell, program manager for the CGIAR Research Programs on Wheat and Maize.

“This review underscores that breaking up the breeding program could cause lasting damage to this network.”

More key findings include:

  • WHEAT is effective and well-managed: In 2017- 2019, WHEAT mainly achieved its planned outputs and outcomes, and in addition achieved unplanned outcomes. For the three years reviewed, WHEAT did not drop any research line.
  • WHEAT’s strength is its partnerships: WHEAT has catalyzed a global network of research and development (R&D) that has delivered and continues to deliver a disproportionate wealth of outputs in relation to investment.
  • WHEAT creates, and thrives on, collaboration: The predominantly public nature of wheat R&D (In the period 1994–2014, the public sector accounted for 63% of global wheat varietal releases and more than 95% of releases in developing countries) favors collaboration, compared with other industries.
  • WHEAT facilitates shared success: The long history of collaboration between CIMMYT, ICARDA and national partners has fostered a sense of belonging to the International Wheat Improvement Network that permits free exchange of information and germplasm, allowing the best varieties to be released, irrespective of origin. International nursery testing delivers elite lines for national program use; data shared by national programs informs WHEAT’s next crossing cycle.

Read more in a 2-page brief summarizing key findings, conclusions and recommendations or on the CGIAR Advisory Services page.

Massive-scale genomic study reveals wheat diversity for crop improvement

A team of scientists has found desirable traits in wheat’s extensive and unexplored diversity.

This press release was originally posted on the website of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

A new study analyzing the diversity of almost 80,000 wheat accessions reveals consequences and opportunities of selection footprints. (Photo: Keith Ewing)

Researchers working on the Seeds of Discovery (SeeD) initiative, which aims to facilitate the effective use of genetic diversity of maize and wheat, have genetically characterized 79,191 samples of wheat from the germplasm banks of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

The findings of the study published today in Nature Communications are described as “a massive-scale genotyping and diversity analysis” of the two types of wheat grown globally — bread and pasta wheat — and of 27 known wild species.

Wheat is the most widely grown crop globally, with an annual production exceeding 600 million tons. Approximately 95% of the grain produced corresponds to bread wheat and the remaining 5% to durum or pasta wheat.

The main objective of the study was to characterize the genetic diversity of CIMMYT and ICARDA’s internationally available collections, which are considered the largest in the world. The researchers aimed to understand this diversity by mapping genetic variants to identify useful genes for wheat breeding.

From germplasm bank to breadbasket

The results show distinct biological groupings within bread wheats and suggest that a large proportion of the genetic diversity present in landraces has not been used to develop new high-yielding, resilient and nutritious varieties.

“The analysis of the bread wheat accessions reveals that relatively little of the diversity available in the landraces has been used in modern breeding, and this offers an opportunity to find untapped valuable variation for the development of new varieties from these landraces”, said Carolina Sansaloni, high-throughput genotyping and sequencing specialist at CIMMYT, who led the research team.

The study also found that the genetic diversity of pasta wheat is better represented in the modern varieties, with the exception of a subgroup of samples from Ethiopia.

The researchers mapped the genomic data obtained from the genotyping of the wheat samples to pinpoint the physical and genetic positions of molecular markers associated with characteristics that are present in both types of wheat and in the crop’s wild relatives.

According to Sansaloni, on average, 72% of the markers obtained are uniquely placed on three molecular reference maps and around half of these are in interesting regions with genes that control specific characteristics of value to breeders, farmers and consumers, such as heat and drought tolerance, yield potential and protein content.

Open access

The data, analysis and visualization tools of the study are freely available to the scientific community for advancing wheat research and breeding worldwide.

“These resources should be useful in gene discovery, cloning, marker development, genomic prediction or selection, marker-assisted selection, genome wide association studies and other applications,” Sansaloni said.

Read the study:

Diversity analysis of 80,000 wheat accessions reveals consequences and opportunities of selection footprints.

Interview opportunities:

Carolina Sansaloni, High-throughput genotyping and sequencing specialist, CIMMYT.

Kevin Pixley, Genetic Resources Program Director, CIMMYT.

For more information, or to arrange interviews, contact the media team:

Ricardo Curiel, Communications Officer, CIMMYT.

Rodrigo Ordóñez, Communications Manager, CIMMYT.


The study was part of the SeeD and MasAgro projects and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), with the support of Mexico’s Secretariat of Agriculture and Rural Development (SADER), the United Kingdom’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and CGIAR Trust Fund Contributors. Research and analysis was conducted in collaboration with the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) and the James Hutton Institute (JHI).


The International Maize and What Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is the global leader in publicly-funded maize and wheat research and related farming systems. Headquartered near Mexico City, CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, thus improving global food security and reducing poverty. CIMMYT is a member of the CGIAR System and leads the CGIAR programs on Maize and Wheat and the Excellence in Breeding Platform. The Center receives support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies. For more information visit

WHEAT Launches 2019 Annual Report

The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) is proud to release our 2019 Annual Report, celebrating shared achievements through partnerships around the world for the 7th year of the program.

In this year’s report, we highlight cutting edge work by researchers and partners — particularly our primary research partner, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) — to help farmers grow wheat that is nutritious, resilient, and high-yielding—while decreasing environmental impact.

DNA fingerprinting, a smartphone-powered warning system, no-till innovations and the joint release of 50 new CGIAR-derived wheat varieties are just a few markers of success in a busy, challenging, and exciting year.

The threat of the current global pandemic highlights the crucial role wheat plays in the health and livelihoods of millions. We look forward to continued productive collaborations as we transition with our partners into an integrated, inclusive “One CGIAR” designed to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Read more in the full SPARK, web-based annual report here.