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NSF Provides Support To 15 Projects Through BREAD Program

May 13, 2010

Projects will advance basic research on key problems in small farmer agriculture in the developing world

To support basic research that will build a foundation for generating sustainable, science-based solutions to agricultural problems in developing countries, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded 15 grants in the inaugural year of the Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development (BREAD) program.

The five-year program is jointly funded with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Through the partnership between the Gates Foundation and the BREAD program, NSF is supporting international projects, with funding provided to both U.S. institutions and their international collaborators.

The awards in this first year of funding will allow scientists to employ novel, creative approaches and technologies to address common constraints faced by small-holder farmers.

These include a multitude of stresses affecting both crops and animals, such as drought and diseases and pests prevalent in the developing world.

“The interest in BREAD has been overwhelming,” said Joann Roskoski, NSF acting assistant director for Biological Sciences. “More than 130 U.S. institutions in 45 states, partnering with more than 200 institutions in 68 countries, submitted proposals for the inaugural competition.

“Projects were in fields as diverse as the genetic improvement of crops and animals, control of diseases and pests, the chemistry and biology of soils and water, and engineering. The awards reflect this diversity.”

“By engaging leading scientists worldwide, the BREAD program will creatively address critical agricultural challenges,” said Rob Horsch, deputy director of the Agricultural Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Resulting solutions will help small farmers in the developing world grow more and earn more so they can lift themselves and their families out of hunger and poverty.”

The awards, made to 42 institutions in 17 states, include international collaborators in Kenya, South Africa, Malawi, Australia, Colombia, Mexico, Switzerland, Denmark, Pakistan, India, Papua New Guinea, and the United Kingdom.

Scientists from Centers of the Consultative Group for International Agriculture (CGIAR) and from the private sector will also participate in some of the projects.

Some examples:

* Scientists at Pennsylvania State University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the Bunda College of Agriculture (Malawi) will exploit a recent discovery that drought tolerance is correlated with the development of aerenchyma, a unique tissue that allows maize roots to expand in area and scavenge for scarce water while minimizing impact on yield. By identifying the genetic loci responsible for this response, the scientists hope to offer a new approach to development of drought-tolerant maize.

* Biologists at New York University, Michigan State University, the Roslin Institute and the University of Edinburgh (U.K.), Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (N.Y.), and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)(Kenya) will test a novel approach to developing cattle that are resistant to trypanosomiasis, a deadly cattle disease in Africa that is closely related to sleeping sickness in humans.

* Genes influencing plant height have revolutionized agriculture by doubling wheat and rice production in plants. However, these “Green Revolution” genes also limit wheat yield under abiotic stress conditions, affecting more than 85 percent of U.S. wheat production and about 50 percent of the world’s wheat production.  A research team at Washington State University, Purdue University, the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, COMSATS University (Pakistan), the Punjab Agricultural University (India), and Pioneer Hi-Bred will work to identify novel dwarfing genes that will increase yield in wheat under drought stress.

* Scientists have long been intrigued by the rich Terra Preta soils of the Amazon basin; these soils may have been created centuries ago through the burning of vegetation by local inhabitants. Research now indicates that a critical component contributing to soil fertility is a special type of black carbon, termed biochar, that can be recreated through what’s called the pyrolysis of biomass–a process of thermal degradation in an oxygen-deprived environment. Scientists at Cornell University; the University of California, Irvine; the University of New South Wales (Australia); and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) (Kenya) will explore some of the key questions about the efficient use and production of biochar to improve soil fertility and crop yield.

* Increasing the efficiency of symbiotic nitrogen fixation in cultivated legume crops has great potential to improve the livelihoods of resource-poor farmers in the developing world. Yet little is known about the mechanisms that mediate efficient symbiosis. Scientists at the University of California, Davis and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) (India) will study the genetic mechanisms that underlie efficient symbiotic nitrogen fixation in chickpea as a first step toward optimizing legume crop improvement strategies that will benefit agriculture in the developing world.

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