Aiding Food Security by Decoding Genetics

Katrien Devos
Katrien Devos, UGA professor, plant breeder and geneticist, is working to make finger millet more productive and disease resistant. Photo by Peter Frey

Finger millet has served as the dietary staple of families in eastern Africa and southern Asia for thousands of years. Research on orphan crops, like finger millet, which are locally important but largely unresearched, could create a more secure food supply. Millions of people rely on finger millet for the bulk of their daily calories.

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

Devos’ research is being funded through the NSF’s Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development (BREAD) Program.  

“Working on developing country 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 have been done on finger millet, we expect our efforts to quickly translate into substantial yield gains for farmers,” Devos said.

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 subsistence crops for maize led to food shortages in many regions.

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 best production practices, Devos said.

The next step in developing food security in eastern Africa involves improving the yields of drought-tolerant grains, she 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 plant biology department, is building on research funded by the biotechnology nonprofit Bio-Innovate Africa and the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC).

The Bio-Innovate Africa and AOCC teams, of which Devos is a member, initiated sequencing of the genome of finger millet, which has proven to be large and complex. Funding through NSF’s BREAD Program will allow use of long-read sequencing technologies 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 genome.

“(Existing) initiatives provide a start, but 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.

By Merritt Melancon