African Centre for Crop Improvement

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African Centre for Crop Improvement

“Training African Breeders on African Crops, in Africa”


PhD and MSc Training in Plant Breeding

We train students in plant breeding, providing them with a spectrum of hard science tools, and soft skills so that they can work independently in an African context. Students work mainly on African food crops including underexploited crops such as Bambara groundnut, tef and finger millet. The overall strategy is to integrate a conventional breeding approach with biotechnology tools, such as genomic diversity studies, and mutation breeding.

Admire Shayaowako measuring bio-chemicals at the FOSS NIRS Laboratory
Isack Mathew - his PhD focused on breeding wheat for drought tolerance and carbon sequestration

We have excellent resources at UKZN for training plant breeders, including biotechnology labs, plant pathology and entomology facilities, greenhouses and a farm with 18ha of irrigated lands available.

At the ACCI, students are trained to do plant breeding, and most of the crops they work on are propagated by seeds and are self-pollinating. This detail is important because with crops like Bambara groundnut, tef and soybean, the process of circumventing the self-pollination process can be tricky, and determines how many crosses a breeder can make in a day. With tef, it’s around three per day, all under a microscope. Compare that with maize, where hundreds of crosses a day can be made.

The rest of the crops that the students work on are either out-crossing, such as maize and pigeonpea, or are propagated vegetatively by roots, tubers and cuttings, such as sweet potato. When breeding cassava, potato or sweet potato, only one perfect individual is needed from which to propagate new clones, and this can be done with cuttings or tubers.

A seed plant like maize, however, is much more time-consuming to breed to the stage of hybrids because a seed production programme is necessary, inbred parents must be maintained, and crosses and hybrid seeds must be produced, with testing at each generation.

Sequence showing process of propagating cassava from cuttings taken from parent plants. These cuttings are planted in seedling trays after being dipped in hormone powder to promote the growth of roots. Figure 9 shows a cutting that has grown into a flourishing cassava plant.
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