Rice. Oryza sativa. A crop that feeds more people worldwide on a daily basis than any other.
It’s the staple food of at least half the world’s population. In many countries, it is eaten several times a day. A meal without rice is no meal at all in many Asian countries. Rice is life!
For almost 20 years from 1991-2010 it was also my life.
While you might know that rice is grown in flooded fields (in so-called rice paddies) in Asia, this crop can be found almost everywhere. It’s an important crop in California and Louisiana in the USA, grown widely in many Latin American countries, and in Europe it is found in the Camargue delta in the south of France, and in the Po Valley south of Milan in northern Italy, in sight of the snow-capped Alps!
Rice is a particularly important crop in West Africa where it evolved from an indigenous species, Oryza glaberrima. In the Riverina of New South Wales, Australia, rice is an irrigated crop, under threat due to water shortages, but where some of the highest global yields have been achieved. In the temperate regions of Japan and northern China rice agriculture is widely grown.
But it is South and Southeast Asia that has the largest areas of cultivation. Farmers throughout the region, particularly in the highlands of Indonesia and the Philippines, have adapted the environment to rice agriculture, terracing whole hillsides to provide pockets of land that can be flooded to grow rice.
The rice we eat in Europe has probably come from Thailand, one of the world’s major rice exporting nations. In Asia, many families subsist by growing their crops on small parcels of land – in flooded conditions, on steep slopes, wherever rice can be grown. Many farmers still grow the same varieties that have been nurtured for generations; yields are often low. Modern rice varieties, in contrast, can yield up to several tons per hectare, vital for feeding ever-burgeoning populations throughout Asia.
Here is a selection of rice agriculture photographs taken by my former colleague Dr Seepana Appa Rao (center in the photo below) who was based in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) for five years from 1995. They illustrate different types of rice agriculture, and farmers proudly displaying their varieties.
Together with Lao colleagues Appa (as we called him) collected, for the first time, more than 13,000 samples of indigenous rice varieties, many with interesting names that often describe their appearance or use in cooking.
Rice is such a fascinating crop you might want to understand a little more. And there’s no better source than Rice Today, a magazine launched by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in 2002, and published quarterly ever since. It’s a solid mix of rice news and research, stories about rice agriculture from around the world, rice recipes even, and the odd children’s story about rice.
It was the brainchild of Gene Hettel, former head of IRRI’s Communication and Publications Services (CPS) and Duncan Macintosh, who was initially IRRI’s spokesperson and head of the Visitors’ Office; he became Director for Development. Duncan moved back to Australia a few years back. Recently he was back in the Philippines on a visit, and caught up with Gene.
Gene Hettel and Duncan Macintosh
The cover story on the very first Rice Today issue was all about the development of rice agriculture in Cambodia after the downfall of the brutal Pol Pot regime. It celebrated the role of Australian agronomist Dr Harry Nesbitt who was team leader for IRRI in Cambodia.
Now in it’s 16th volume, with a change of logo even, the cover of latest issue shows a painting of a traditional method of rice planting by Filipino artist Erick Dator. Throughout each issue, the graphics and images are stunning. Take for example the aerial photographs accompanying an article published in the Jan-Mar 2008 issue, written by Gene about the of the Ifugao rice terraces in the Philippines.
For its 10th anniversary (Vol 11) in January 2012, former Director General Bob Zeigler talked about the value of Rice Today. Just click on the image below to read it.
Rice Today is published by IRRI on behalf of Rice (GRiSP), the CGIAR research program on rice; it is also available online. Lanie Reyes (right) joined IRRI in 2008 as a science writer and editor. She is now editor-in-chief. She is supported by Savitri Mohapatra and Neil Palmer from sister centers Africa Rice Center in Côte d’Ivoire and CIAT in Colombia, respectively.
Gene was a close colleague of mine; we even won the odd communications award together as well! He came to IRRI in 1995 (having been a visiting editor in 1982-83) from a sister center, CIMMYT, based north of Mexico City that works on maize and wheat improvement, just like IRRI works on rice. He had been a communications expert at CIMMYT. Here is a younger Gene in a wheat field in Mexico with Nobel Peace Laureate Dr Norman Borlaug, who spent much of his career at CIMMYT.
Way above the Arctic Circle (in fact at 78°N) there is a very large and cold hole in the ground. Mostly it is dark. Few people visit it on a daily basis.
A germplasm backup for the world
Nevertheless it’s a very important hole in the ground. It is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, where more than 70 genebanks have placed — for long-term security, and under so-called blackbox storage  — a duplicate sample of seeds from their genetic resources (or germplasm) collections of plant species important for agriculture. Many of the most important and genetically diverse germplasm collections are backed up in Svalbard. But there are hundreds more collections, including some very important national collections, still not represented there.
A beacon of light – and hope – shining out over the Arctic landscape. Photo courtesy of the Crop Trust.
Since it opened in 2008, the Svalbard vault has hardly ever been out of the media; here is a recent story from Spain’s El Pais, for example. If the public knows anything at all about genetic resources and conservation of biodiversity, they have probably heard about that in relation to Svalbard (and to a lesser extent, perhaps, Kew Gardens’ Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place in Sussex).
The Svalbard Vault is a key and vital component of a worldwide network of genebanks and genetic resources collections. It provides a long-term safety backup for germplasm that is, without doubt, the genetic foundation for food security; I have blogged about this before. At Svalbard, the seeds are ‘sleeping’ deep underground, waiting to be wakened when the time comes to resurrect a germplasm collection that is under threat. Waiting for the call that hopefully never comes.
Carrying newly-arrived germplasm samples into the Vault.
Shelf after shelf of seeds – waiting to be called.
Svalbard comes to the rescue
But that call did come in 2015 for the first and only time since the vault opened. Among the first depositors in Svalbard in 2008 were the international genebanks of the CGIAR Consortium, including the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). The ICARDA genebank conserves important cereal and legume collections from from the Fertile Crescent (the so-called ‘Cradle of Agriculture’) in the Middle East, and from the Mediterranean region. Until the civil war forced them out of Syria, ICARDA’s headquarters were based in Aleppo. Now it has reestablished its genebank operations in Morocco and Lebanon. In order to re-build its active germplasm collections, ICARDA retrieved over 15,000 samples from Svalbard in 2015, the only time that this has happened since the vault was opened. Now, thanks to successful regeneration of those seeds in Morocco and Lebanon, samples are now being returned to Svalbard to continue their long sleep underground.
ICARDA genebank staff ready to send precious seeds off to the Arctic. Dr Ahmed Amri, the ICARDA Head of Genetic Resources, is third from the right. Photo courtesy of ICARDA.
Another point that is often not fully understood, is that Svalbard is designated as a ‘secondary’ safety backup site. Genebanks sending material to Svalbard are expected to have in place a primary backup site and agreement. In the case of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which I am most familiar with for obvious reasons, duplicate germplasm samples of almost the entire collection of 127,000 accessions, are stored under blackbox conditions in the -18°C vaults of The National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado. Although ICARDA had safety backup arrangements in place for its collections, these involved several institutes. To reestablish its active collections in 2015 it was simpler and more cost effective to retrieve the samples from just one site: Svalbard.
Dr Åsmund Asdal, Coordinator of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, from the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen), receives a shipment of germplasm from CIAT in October 2016. Photo courtesy of the Crop Trust.
The germplasm iceberg
Key and vital as Svalbard is, it is just the tip of the germplasm iceberg. The Svalbard vault is just like the part of an iceberg that you see. There’s a lot more going on in the genetic resources world that the public never, or hardly ever, sees.
There are, for example, other types of genetic resources that will never be stored at Svalbard. Why? Some plant species cannot be easily stored as seeds because they either reproduce vegetatively (and are even sterile or have low fertility at the very least; think of bananas, potatoes, yams or cassava); or have so-called recalcitrant seeds that are short-lived or cannot be stored at low temperature and moisture content like the seeds of many cereals and other food crop species (the very species stored at Svalbard). Many fruit tree species have recalcitrant seeds.
Apart from the ICARDA story, which was, for obvious reasons, headline news, we rarely see or hear in the media the incredible stories behind those seeds: where they were collected, who is working hard to keep them alive and studying the effects of storage conditions on seed longevity, and how plant breeders have crossed them with existing varieties to make them more resistant to diseases or better able to tolerate environmental change, such as higher temperatures, drought or flooding. Last year I visited a potato and sweet potato genebank in Peru, a bean and cassava genebank in Colombia, and one for wheat and maize in Mexico; then in Kenya and Ethiopia, I saw how fruit trees and forage species are being conserved.
Here is what happens at IRRI. You can’t do these things at Svalbard!
These are the day-to-day (and quite expensive) operations that genebanks manage to keep germplasm alive: as seeds, as in vitro cultures, or as field collections.
But what is the value of genebank collections? Check out a PowerPoint presentation I gave at a meeting last June. One can argue that all germplasm has an inherent value. We value it for its very existence (just like we would whales or tigers). Germplasm diversity is a thing of beauty.
Most landraces or wild species in a genebank have an option value, a potential to provide a benefit at some time in the future. They might be the source of a key trait to improve the productivity of a crop species. Very little germplasm achieves actual value, when it used in plant breeding and thereby bringing about a significant increase in productivity and economic income.
There are some spectacular examples, however, and if only a small proportion of the economic benefits of improved varieties was allocated for long-term conservation, the funding challenge for genebanks would be met. Human welfare and nutrition are also enhanced through access to better crop varieties.
Last year, in preparation for a major fund-raising initiative for its Crop Diversity Endowment Fund, the Crop Trust prepared an excellent publication that describes the importance of genebanks and their collections, why they are needed, and how they have contributed to agricultural productivity. The economic benefits from using crop wild relatives are listed in Table 2 on page 8. Just click on the cover image (right) to open a copy of the paper. A list of wild rice species with useful agronomic traits is provided in Table 3 on page 9.
Linking genebanks and plant breeding
Let me give you, once again, a couple of rice examples that illustrate the work of genebanks and the close links with plant breeding, based on careful study of genebank accessions.
The indica variety IR72 was bred at IRRI, and released in 1990. It became the world’s highest yielding rice variety. One of its ancestors, IR36 was, at one time, grown on more than 11 million hectares. IR72 has 22 landrace varieties and a single wild rice, Oryza nivara, in its pedigree. It gets its short stature ultimately from IR8, the first of the so-called ‘miracle rices’ that was released in 1966. IRRI celebrated the 50th anniversary of that release recently. Resistance to a devastating disease, grassy stunt virus, was identified in just one accession of O. nivara from India. That resistance undoubtedly contributed to the widespread adoption of both IR36 and IR72. Just click on the pedigree diagram below to open a larger image .
The pedigree of rice variety IR72, that includes 22 landrace varieties and one wild species, Oryza nivara. Courtesy of IRRI.
A more recent example has been the search for genes to protect rice varieties against flooding . Now that might seem counter-intuitive given that rice in the main grows in flooded fields. But if rice is completely submerged for any length of time, it will, like any other plant, succumb to submergence and die. Or if it does recover, the rice crop will be severely retarded and yield very poorly.
Rice varieties with and without the SUB1 gene following transient complete submergence. Photo courtesy of IRRI.
Seasonal flooding is a serious issue for farmers in Bangladesh and eastern India. So the search was on for genes that would confer tolerance of transient complete submergence. And it took 18 years or more from the discovery of the SUB1 gene to the release of varieties that are now widely grown in farmers’ fields, and bringing productivity backed to farming communities that always faced seasonal uncertainty. These are just two examples of the many that have been studied and reported on in the scientific press.
There are many more examples from other genebanks of the CGIAR Consortium that maintain that special link between conservation and use. But also from other collections around the world where scientists are studying and using germplasm samples, often using the latest molecular genetics approaches for the benefit of humanity. I’ve just chosen to highlight stories from rice, the crop I’m most familiar with.
 Blackbox storage is described thus on the Crop Trust website (https://www.croptrust.org/our-work/svalbard-global-seed-vault/): “The depositors who will deposit material will do so consistently with relevant national and international law. The Seed Vault will only agree to receive seeds that are shared under the Multilateral System or under Article 15 of the International Treaty or seeds that have originated in the country of the depositor.
Each country or institution will still own and control access to the seeds they have deposited. The Black Box System entails that the depositor is the only one that can withdraw the seeds and open the boxes.”
 Zeigler, RS (2014). Food security, climate change and genetic resources. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp. 1-15.
 Ismail, AM & Mackill, DJ (2014). Response to flooding: submergence tolerance in rice. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp. 251-269.
 McNally, KL (2014). Exploring ‘omics’ of genetic resources to mitigate the effects of climate change. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp. 166-189.
That was the title of a one day meeting on plant genetic resources organized by doctoral students, led by Jade Phillips, in the School of Biosciences at The University of Birmingham last Thursday, 2 June. And I was honoured to be invited to present a short talk at the meeting.
Now, as regular readers of my blog will know, I began my career in plant genetic resources conservation and use at Birmingham in September 1970, when I joined the one year MSc course on genetic conservation, under the direction of Professor Jack Hawkes. The course had been launched in 1969, and 47 years later there is still a significant genetic resources presence in the School, even though the taught course is no longer offered (and hasn’t accepted students for a few years). Staff have come and gone – me included, but that was 25 years ago less one month, and the only staff member offering research places in genetic resources conservation is Dr Nigel Maxted. He was appointed to a lectureship at Birmingham (from Southampton, where I had been an undergraduate) when I upped sticks and moved to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in 1991.
Click on this image for the full program and a short bio of each speaker.
Click on each title below; there is a link to each presentation.
I guess there were about 25-30 participants in the meeting, mainly young scientists just starting their careers in plant genetic resources, but with a few external visitors (apart from speakers) from the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew-Wakehurst Place, the James Hutton Institute near Dundee, and IBERS at Aberystwyth.
The meeting grew out of an invitation to Åsmund Asdal from the Nordic Genetic Resources Center (NordGen) to present a School of Biosciences Thursday seminar. So the audience for his talk was much bigger.
Åsmund is Coordinator of Operation and Management for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and he gave a fascinating talk about the origins and development of this important global conservation facility, way above the Arctic Circle. Today the Vault is home to duplicate samples of germplasm from more than 60 depositor genebanks or institutes (including the international collections held in the CGIAR genebank collections, like that at IRRI.
Nigel Maxted’s research group has focused on the in situ conservation and use of crop wild relatives (CWR), although they are also looking at landrace varieties as well. Several of the papers described research linked to the CWR Project, funded by the Government of Norway through the Crop Trust and Kew. Postdocs and doctoral students are looking at the distributions of crop wild relatives, and using GIS and other sophisticated approaches that were beyond my comprehension, to determine not only where there are gaps in distributions, lack of germplasm in genebank collections, but also where possible priority conservation sites could be established. And all this under the threat of climate change. The various PowerPoint presentations demonstrate these approaches—which all rely on vast data sets—much better than I can describe them. So I encourage you to dip into the slide shows and see what this talented group of scientists has been up to.
Neil Munro from Garden Organic described his organization’s approach to rescue and multiply old varieties of vegetables that can be shared among enthusiasts.
Seeds cannot be sold because they are not on any official list of seed varieties. What is interesting is that one variety of scarlet runner bean has become so popular among gardeners that a commercial seed company (Thompson & Morgan if I remember what he said) has now taken this variety and selling it commercially.
Julian Hosking from Natural England gave some interesting insights into how his organization was looking to combine the conservation of genetic diversity—his ‘Fifth Dimension’—with conservation of natural habitats in the UK, and especially the conservation of crop wild relatives of which there is a surprisingly high number in the British flora (such as brassicas, carrot, and onions, for example).
So, what about myself? When I was asked to contribute a paper I had to think hard and long about a suitable topic. I’ve always been passionate about the use of plant genetic diversity to increase food security. I decided therefore to talk about the value of genebank collections, how that value might be measured, and I provided examples of how germplasm had been used to increase the productivity of both potatoes and rice.
Nicolay Vavilov is a hero of mine
Although all the speakers developed their own talks quite independently, a number of common themes emerged several times. At one point in my talk I had focused on the genepool concept of Harlan and de Wet to illustrate the biological value (easy to use versus difficult to use) of germplasm in crop breeding.
In the CWR Project research several speakers showed how the genepool concept could be used to set priorities for conservation.
Finally, there was one interesting aspect to the meeting—from my perspective at least. I had seen the titles of all the other papers as I was preparing my talk, and I knew several speakers would be talking about future prospects, especially under a changing climate. I decided to spend a few minutes looking back to the beginning of the genetic conservation movement in which Jack Hawkes was one of the pioneers. What I correctly guessed was that most of my audience had not even been born when I started out on my genetic conservation career, and probably knew very little about how the genetic conservation movement had started, who was involved, and what an important role The University of Birmingham had played. From the feedback I received, it seems that quite a few of the participants were rather fascinated by this aspect of my talk.
When the Director General of one of the world’s premier agricultural research institutes talks about poverty and food security, and what has to change, the global development community better take note. The Director General of IRRI—the International Rice Research Institute, located in Los Baños, the Philippines—has a unique perspective on these issues, since rice is the most important staple crop on the planet, and the basis of food security for more than half the world’s population who eat rice at least once a day. And rice agriculture is also the livelihood for millions of farmers and their families worldwide. When rice prospers, so do they. They feed their families, they send their children to school. The converse, alas, is also true.
For the past decade, IRRI has been led by a remarkable scientist, someone I am honored to call a friend, and a close colleague for many years. In mid-December, however, Dr Robert ‘Bob’ Zeigler will step down as CEO and Director General of IRRI, a position he has held since March 2005. Bob is IRRI’s ninth Director General. And of all those who have held this position, he perhaps has been uniquely qualified, because of his practical experience of working in many developing countries, his in-depth understanding of international agricultural research funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and his profound knowledge of rice agriculture.
A passion for science
Bob hails from the USA, and completed his BS degree in biological sciences at the University of Illinois in 1972, followed by an MS from the University of Oregon in forest ecology in 1978. He joined the Peace Corps and spent a couple of years in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), and it was there that his passion for plant pathology was ignited. He returned to Cornell University to work for his PhD in 1982 on cassava diseases under the guidance of renowned plant pathologist Dr H David Thurston. For his PhD research, Bob also spent time at a sister center, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia that has an important global cassava research program, and germplasm collection. After his PhD Bob returned to Africa, working in the national maize program in Burundi.
After three years, he joined CIAT as a senior plant pathologist and then became head of the rice program. IRRI recruited Bob in December 1991 to lead the Rainfed Lowland Rice Research Program, and I first met Bob around September of that year when he came for interview. I was also a newbie, having joined IRRI as head of the Genetic Resources Center just three months earlier. After a couple of years or so, he became leader of the Irrigated Rice Research Program. Much of his own research focused on the rice blast pathogen, Magnaporthe grisea, and I know he is particularly proud of the work he and his colleagues did on the population genetic structure of the pathogen.
Bob with Gonzalo Zorilla of the Uruguayan rice program.
Henri Carsalade (France), IRRI DG Klaus Lampe, and Bob.
Sitting L to R: Ken Fischer, George Rothschild, William Dar (PCARRD), ??; Standing L to R: Bob, Kwanchai Gomez, Nanding Bernardo, Mike Jackson, ?? (Korea).
As a program leader Bob visited all of the rice-growing countries in Asia, and with his experience in Latin America at CIAT, as well as working in Africa, he had a broad perspective on the challenges facing rice agriculture. And of all his eight predecessors as Director General of IRRI, Bob is the only one who made rice his career. This has given him the edge, I believe, to speak authoritatively about this important crop and rice research. His scientific credentials and passion for ‘doing the right science, and doing the science right‘ ensured that Bob was the candidate recruited as the next Director General when Ron Cantrell stepped down in 2004.
First departure from IRRI
Bob first left IRRI in 1998, and became professor and head of the Department of Plant Pathology at Kansas State University. But he couldn’t stay away from international agriculture for long, and by 2004 he became Director of the CGIAR’s cross-cutting Generation Challenge Program (GCP). I like to think my colleagues and I in the System-wide Genetic Resources Program (SGRP) had something to do with the founding of the GCP, since we held an interdisciplinary workshop in The Hague in September 1999 assessing the role of comparative genetics to study germplasm diversity. I invited Bob as one of the participants. Comparative genetics and its applications became one of the pillars of the GCP. And its was from the GCP that Bob returned to IRRI in March 2005 as the institute’s ninth Director General.
Back ‘home’ again
And it wasn’t long before his presence was felt. It’s not inappropriate to comment that IRRI had lost its way during the previous decade for various reasons. There was no clear research strategy nor direction. Strong leadership was in short supply. Bob soon put an end to that, convening an international expert group of stakeholders (rice researchers, rice research leaders from national programs, and donors) to help the institute chart a perspective for the next decade or so. In 2006 IRRI’s Strategic Plan (2007-2015), Bringing Hope, Improving Lives, was rolled out.
Bob wasn’t averse to tackling a number of staffing issues, even among the senior management team. And although the changes were uncomfortable for the individuals involved (and Bob himself), Bob built a strong team to support the finance, administration, and research challenges that he knew IRRI would face if it was to achieve its goals.
A born leader
Not every good scientist can become a good manager or research leader, but I do think that Bob was an exception. His major strength, as I see it, was to have a clear vision of what he wanted the institute to achieve, and to be able to explain to all stakeholders why this was important, what needed to be done or put in place, and how everyone could contribute. He nurtured an environment at IRRI where research flourished. Rice research was once again at the center of the international agricultural research agenda. Many visitors to the institute commented on the ‘science buzz’ around the institute. And if Bob felt he wasn’t equipped to tackle a particular situation, he sought—and took—advice. Perhaps uniquely among many of the Directors General of the CGIAR centers, Bob has this ability to listen, to argue fiercely if he thinks you are wrong or misguided. But once convinced of an argument, he accepts the alternatives and moves forward. However, he also admits when he gets something wrong, a very important attribute for any CEO.
Science at the heart of IRRI’s agenda
With Bob at the helm, IRRI’s research agenda expanded, as did the funding base, with significant funding coming from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for submergence tolerant rice, for C4 rice, and stressed rice environments. Under Bob’s guidance IRRI developed the first of the CGIAR research programs, GRiSP—the Global Rice Science Partnership. I think that name is instructive. Science and partnership are the key elements. Bob has vigorously defended IRRI’s research for development focus in the face of quite hostile criticism from some of his colleagues and peers among the CGIAR Center Directors. As Bob has rightly rebutted their ‘anti-science’ attacks, by explaining that submergence tolerant rice varieties for example (that are now benefiting millions of farmers in Asia) didn’t materialize as if by magic. There had been an 18 year intensive research program to identify the genetic base of submergence tolerance, and several years to transfer the genes into widely-adapted rice varieties before farmers even had the first seeds.
These are just a few of the research innovations that have taken place with Bob at IRRI’s helm. No doubt there will be much more appearing in print in due course that will fill in many more of the details. I’ll let Bob tell us a few things in his own words, just published in the latest issue of Rice Today.
Over the past 10 years Bob has been invited to speak at many international meetings, including the World Economic Forum held each year in Davos. He’s appeared on numerous television broadcasts and news programs. His contributions to rice science have been recognized with numerous awards and honorary doctorates. Just last week he received from the Government of the Philippines its highest honour awarded to a foreign national—the Order of Sikatuna, Grand Cross (Rank of Datu), Gold Distinction (Katangiang Ginto).
A downturn . . . but continuing strength It must be rather disappointing for Bob to leave IRRI just as the funding support for the centers has once again hit the buffers, and led to a trimming of IRRI’s research and staff. But even with these setbacks, Bob leaves a strong institute that can and will withstand such setbacks. Incoming Director General Matthew Morell, the current Deputy Director General for Research, has big shoes to fill. Nevertheless, I’m sure that the underlying strength of IRRI will enable Matthew to move IRRI once again towards the important goals of supporting rice farmers, enhancing food security, and reducing poverty. Rice research is closely aligned with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, as it will be with the recently-agreed Sustainable Development Goals. In fact it’s hard to contemplate the successful delivery of these goals without rice being part of the equation.
Bob Zeigler and Mike Jackson after the unveiling of one of two historical markers at IRRI, on 14 April 2010, IRRI’s 50th anniversary.
So let me take this opportunity of thanking Bob for his friendship and collegiality over many years, and to wish him and Crissan many years of happy retirement back in Portland, OR. However, I’m sure it won’t be long before he is lured out of retirement in some capacity or other to continue contributing his intellect, experience, and broad perspectives to the global development agenda.
A few anecdotes
But I can’t end this blog post without telling a ‘tale’ or two.
Bob has a great sense of humor, often self-deprecating. Unfortunately this is not always understood by everyone. But I certainly appreciated it, as I’m much the same.
Not long after Bob joined IRRI he took up scuba diving, as did I. And we have, over the years, made some great dives together at Anilao, Batangas. Here are a few memorable photos from a great dive we made at the ‘coral garden’ site, to the south of Sombrero Island in April 2005.
In the 1990s, Bob rode the IRRI Staff bus to and from Staff Housing each day. The ten or so minute drive down to the research center was a good opportunity to catch up on gossip, check a few things with colleagues before everyone disappeared into their offices, or simply to exchange some friendly banter. On two occasions, Bob was the ‘victim’ of some leg-pulling from his colleagues, me included.
I don’t remember which year it was, but Bob had been asked to chair the committee organizing the biennial International Rice Research Conference that would be held at IRRI HQ. The guest speaker was President of the Philippines, Fidel Ramos, and it was Bob’s responsibility to introduce him. For several weeks Bob would be greeted with the sound advice from his colleagues each time he took the bus: “Remember“, they exhorted him, “It’s President Marcos. Marcos!” In the event, Bob cleverly avoided any embarrassment, simply introducing him as ‘Mr President’.
On a couple of occasions, Bob and I were members of the ‘IRRI Strolling Players’, taking part in a pantomime (usually three performances) in the institute’s auditorium. In 1995 the theme was Robin Hood and His Merry Men. I played a rather camp Prince John; Bob was Friar Tuck.
Bob had the awkward line at some point in the play: “My, that’s a cunning stunt“. And you can imagine the bus banter around that. “Remember Bob, you say it’s a ‘cunning stunt’!” Fortunately Bob was not susceptible to Spoonerisms.
Both Bob and I have contributed over the years to the Christmas festivities at Staff Housing by taking on the role of Santa (hush, don’t tell anyone).
Bob Zeigler, pipe and all.
Santa, Crissan and Bob Zeigler.
It was fun working with Bob. He set a challenging agenda that staff responded to. It’s not for nothing that IRRI has continued to retain its high reputation for science and scientific impact. And for the past decade IRRI has indeed been fortunate to have Bob in charge.
I believe it was IRRI’s former head of plant pathology Dr Tom (Twng-Wah) Mew who first coined this aphorism to describe IRRI’s philosophical approach to research (and I paraphrase):
It’s not only necessary to do the right science, but to do the science right.
I couldn’t agree more, and have blogged elsewhere about the relevance of IRRI’s science. But this is science or research for development (or R4D as it’s often abbreviated) and best explained, perhaps by the institute’s tagline or slogan:
This is not science in a vacuum, in an ivory tower seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake. This is research to solve real problems: to reduce poverty and increase food security. I don’t really like the distinction that’s often made between so-called pure or basic science, and applied science. Surely it’s a continuum? Let me give you just one example from my own research experience.
I have also blogged about the problem of bacterial wilt of potatoes. It can be a devastating disease, not only of potatoes and other solaneaceous crops like tomatoes and eggplants, but also of bananas. While the research I carried out was initially aimed at identifying better adapted potatoes resistant to bacterial wilt, very much an ‘applied’ perspective, we also had to investigate why the bacterium was surviving so long in the soil in the apparent absence of susceptible hosts. This epidemiological focus fed into better disease control approaches.
But in any case, the only distinction that perhaps really matters is whether the science is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Why is rice science so crucial? Because rice is the world’s most important staple food, feeding more than half of the global population on a daily basis, even several times a day in some Asian countries. IRRI’s science focuses on gains for rice farmers and those who eat rice, research that can potentially affect billions of people. It’s all about impact, at different levels. While not all impact is positive, however, it’s important to think through all the implications and direction of a particular line of research even before it starts. In other words ‘What does success look like?‘ and how will research outputs become positive outcomes?
Now I don’t claim to be an expert in impact assessment. That’s quite a specialized field, with its own methodologies. It wasn’t until I changed careers at IRRI in 2001 and became the Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC) that I fully came to understand (or even appreciate) what ex ante and ex post impact meant in the context of R4D. I was fortunate as DPPC to call upon the expertise of my Australian colleague, Dr Debbie Templeton, now back in her home country with the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).
Rice Science for a Better World?
IRRI has a prestigious scientific reputation, and deservedly so. It strives hard to maintain that reputation.
IRRI scientists publish widely in international journals. IRRI’s publication rate is second-to-none. On occasion IRRI has been criticized, censured almost, for being ‘obsessed with science and scientific publication’. Extraordinary! What for heaven’s sake does ‘Research’ in the name ‘International Rice Research Institute’ stand for? Or for that matter, in the name ‘CGIAR’ or ‘Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research’?
What our erstwhile colleagues fail to grasp, I believe, is that scientific publication is a consequence of doing good science, not an objective in itself. Having recruited some of the best scientists, IRRI provides an environment that brings out the best in its staff to contribute effectively to the institute’s common goals, while permitting them to grow professionally. Surely it must be the best of both worlds to have scientists contributing to a worthwhile and important research agenda, but knowing that their work is also esteemed by their scientific peers?
But what is the ‘right science’? Well, it depends of course.
IRRI is not an academic institution, where scientists are expected to independently pursue their own interests, and bring in large sums of research funding (along with the delicious overheads that administrators expect). All IRRI scientists contribute—as breeders, geneticists, pathologists, molecular biologists, economists, or whatever—to a common mission that:
. . . aims to reduce poverty and hunger, improve the health of rice farmers and consumers, and ensure environmental sustainability of rice farming. We do these through collaborative research, partnerships, and the strengthening of the national agricultural research and extension systems, or NARES, of the countries we work in.
IRRI’s research agenda and policies are determined by a board of trustees, guided by input from its partners, donors, end users such as farmers, and its staff. IRRI aims to meet five goals, aligned with the objectives of the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP), that coordinates rice research among more than 900 international partners, to:
Reduce poverty through improved and diversified rice-based systems.
Ensure that rice production is stable and sustainable, does minimal harm to the environment, and can cope with climate change.
Improve the nutrition and health of poor rice consumers and farmers.
Provide equitable access to information and knowledge on rice and help develop the next generation of rice scientists.
Provide scientists and producers with the genetic information and material they need to develop improved technologies and enhance rice production.
Rice Science for a Better World, indeed.
Dr Thelma Paris, former gender specialist at IRRI, discusses production constraints with farmers and researchers.
A contented rice consumer – rice science for a better world.
Women often face the brunt of rice production.
Vitamin A deficiency cause blindness, especially in young children.
Iron-rich rice is one way to solve the micronutient imbalance.
Rice resrachers look for resistance to pests and diseases.
This is what it’s all about: poverty and food security.
This rice farmer in Bangladesh benefits from new rice varieties.
Plant breeders discuss how new varieties will increase production.
Rice agriculture is the basis of food security for millions of farmers in Asia and Africa.
Finding the genes – new technologies can accelerate rice breeding.
International agricultural research like IRRI’s is funded from the public purse, in the main, though the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has become a major player supporting agricultural research over the past decade. Tax dollars, Euros, British pounds, Swiss francs, or Japanese yen are donated—invested even—through overseas development assistance budgets like USAID in the USA, the European Commission, DfID in the UK, SDC in Switzerland, and several institutions in Japan, to name just a handful of those donor agencies committed to finding solutions to real problems through research. Donors want to see how their funds are being used, and the positive benefits that their investments have contributed to. Unfortunately donors rarely share the same vision of ‘success’.
One of the challenges that faces a number of research organizations however, is that their research mandates fall short of effectively turning research outputs into research outcomes or impact. But having an idea of ‘what success looks like’ researchers can be in a better position to know who to partner with to ensure that research outputs become outcomes, be they national scientists, civil society organizations, NGOs, and the like.
As I said, when I became DPPC at IRRI, my office managed the process of developing and submitting research project funding proposals, as well as reporting back to donors what had been achieved. I had to get this message across to my research scientist colleagues: How will your proposed research project benefit farmers and rice consumers? This was not something they expected.
Quite early on in my DPPC tenure, I had a wake-up call after we had submitted a proposal to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), at their request I should add, to support some work on rice genomics. The science described in the proposal was first rate. After mulling over our proposal for a couple of months, I received a phone call from our contact at ADB in Manila who was handling the internal review of the proposal. He asked me to add a paragraph or two about how this work on rice genomics would benefit rice consumers otherwise ADB would not be able to consider this project in its next funding round.
So I went to discuss this apparent conundrum with the scientist involved, and explained what was required for ADB approval. ‘How will rice genomics benefit rice farmers and consumers?‘, I asked him. ‘I can’t describe that‘ he relied, somewhat woefully. ‘Well‘, I replied, ‘unless we can tell ADB how your project is going to benefit farmers etc, then your proposal is dead in the water‘.
After some thought, and based on my simplistic explanation of the impact pathway, he did come up with quite an elegant justification that we could submit to ADB. Despite our efforts, the project was not funded by ADB. The powers-that-be decided that the research was too far removed from the ultimate beneficiaries. But the process in itself was useful. It helped us to understand better how we should pitch our proposals and what essential elements to show we had thought things through.
Now the graphic below is obviously a simplistic representation of a complex set of issues. The figure on the left represents a farmer, a community, a situation that is constrained in some way or other, such as low yield, diseased crops, access to market, human health issues, and the like. The objective of the research must be clearly defined and described. No point tilting at the wrong windmills.
The solid black and dashed red line represents the impact pathway to a better situation, turning research outputs into outcomes. The green arrow represents the point on that impact pathway where the research mandate of an institute often ends—before the outcome is delivered and adopted. How to fill that gap?
Individual research projects produce outputs along the impact pathway, and outputs from one project can be the inputs into another.
Whatever the impact pathway, it’s necessary to describe what success looks like, an increase in production over a specified area, release and adoption of disease resistant varieties, incomes of X% of farmers in region Y increased by Z%, or whatever.
Let me highlight two IRRI projects. One has already shown impact after a research journey of almost two decades. The other, perhaps on-going for the same time period, has yet to show impact. I’m referring to submergence tolerant or ‘scuba rice‘, and ‘Golden Rice’, respectively.
For the development of scuba rice it was first necessary to identify and characterize genes conferring submergence tolerance—many years in the laboratory even before the first lines were tested in the field and the proof of concept realized. It didn’t take long for farmers to see the advantage of these new rice varieties. They voted with their feet! So, in a sense, the farmers themselves managed the dashed red line of the impact pathway. Scuba rice is now grown on more than 2.5 million hectares by 10 million farmers in India and Bangladesh on land that could not consistently support rice crops because of flooding.
Golden Rice has the potential to eradicate the problem of Vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness. As I mentioned earlier, rice is eaten by many people in Asia several times a day. It’s the perfect vehicle to enhance the Vitamin A intake. Varieties have been produced, the proof of concept completed, yet Golden Rice is not yet grown commercially anywhere in those countries that would benefit most. The dashed red line in my impact pathway diagram is the constraint. Golden Rice is a GMO, and the post-research and pre-release regulatory framework has not been surmounted. Pressure groups also have delayed the testing of Golden Rice lines, even destroying field experiments that would provide the very data they are so ‘afraid’ of. Thus its impact is more potential than real. Donors have been patient, but is there a limit to that patience?
Keeping donors on-side
What I also came to realize early on is that it’s so necessary to engage on a regular basis with donors, establish a good working relationship, visit them in their offices from time-to-time, sharing a drink or a meal. Mutual confidence builds, and I found that I could pick up the phone and talk through an issue, send an email and get a reply quickly, and even consulted by donors themselves as they developed their funding priorities. It’s all part of research management. Donors also like to have ‘good news stories’. Nowadays, social media such as Facebook and Twitter, blogging even, also keep them in the loop. After all donors have their own constituencies—the taxpayers—to keep informed and onside as well.
Achieving impact is not easy. But if you have identified the wrong target, then no amount of research will bring about the desired outcome, or less likely to do so. While impact is the name of the game, good communications is equally important. They go hand-in-hand.
Regular visitors to my blog will, by now, know that for many years from July 1991 I worked at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños in the Philippines, south of Manila. For the first 10 years, I was head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC), having particular responsibility for the International Rice Genebank (now supported financially by the Global Crop Diversity Trust). Elsewhere on this blog I have written about the genebank and what it takes to ensure the long-term safety of all the germplasm samples (or accessions as they are known) of cultivated rices and related wild species of Oryza.
Well, consider my surprise, not to say a little perplexed, when I recently read a scientific paper¹ that had just been published in the journal Annals of Botany by my former colleagues Fiona Hay (IRRI) and Richard Ellis (University of Reading), with their PhD student Katherine Whitehouse, about the beneficial effect of high-temperature drying on the longevity of rice seeds in storage. Now this really is a big issue for curators of rice germplasm collections, let alone other crop species perhaps.
Dr Fiona Hay, IRRI
Professor Richard Ellis, University of Reading
Katherine Whitehouse, PhD Scholar at the University of Reading and IRRI
So why all the fuss, and why am I perplexed about this latest research? Building on a paper published in 2011 by Crisistomo et al. in Seed Science & Technology², this most recent research¹ provides significant evidence, for rice at least, that seed drying at a relatively low temperature and relative humidity, 15C and 15RH—the genebank standard for at least three decades—may not be the best option for some rice accessions, depending on the moisture content of seeds at the time of harvest. It’s counter-intuitive.
But also because germplasm regeneration and production of high quality seeds is one aspect of germplasm conservation most likely to be impacted by climate change, as Brian Ford-Lloyd, Mauricio Bellon and I emphasized in our chapter in Genetic Resources and Climate Change.
To explain further, it’s necessary to take you back 24 years to when I first joined IRRI.
Dr Klaus Lampe, IRRI Director General 1988-1995
The first six months or so
The Director General in 1991, Dr Klaus Lampe, encouraged me to take a broad view of seed management services at IRRI, specifically the operations and efficiency of the International Rice Genebank (IRG). It was also agreed that I should develop research on the germplasm collection and its conservation, something that had not been considered when the GRC Head position was advertised in September 1990. I should add that in negotiating and accepting the GRC position, I had insisted that GRC should have a research arm, so to speak. I guess I was in a fairly strong negotiating position.
Dr TT Chang
Once at IRRI, I didn’t rush into things. After all, I had never run a genebank before let alone work on rice, although much of my career to that date had been involved in various aspects of germplasm conservation and use. But after about six months, I reckon I’d asked enough questions, looked at how the genebank was running on a day-to-day basis. I had developed a number of ideas that I thought should vastly enhance the long-term conservation of rice germplasm, but at the same time allow all the various operations of the genebank run smoothly and hopefully more efficiently. In one sense, managing the individual aspects or operations of a genebank are quite straight-forward. It’s bringing them all together that’s the tricky part.
There was another ‘delicate’ situation to address, however. All the Filipino staff had worked for only one person for many years, my predecessor as head of the genebank (then known as the International Rice Germplasm Center, or IRGC), Dr TT Chang. It’s not an understatement to say that many of these staff were fiercely loyal to Dr Chang (loyalty being one of their greatest virtues), firmly fixed in their ways, and didn’t feel—or maybe understand—that changes were desirable or even necessary. It was a classic change management situation that I was faced with. I needed to help them evaluate for themselves the current genebank management focus, and propose (with more than a little encouragement and suggestions from me) how we might do things differently, and better.
Some radical changes
But I don’t think anyone foresaw the radical changes to the management of the genebank that actually emerged. The genebank was ‘the jewel in IRRI’s crown’, the facility that every visitor to the institute just had to see. It seemed to run like clockwork—and it did, in its own way.
Staffing and responsibilities
Apart from several staffing issues, I was particularly concerned about how rice germplasm was being regenerated in the field, and how it was handled prior to medium-and long-term storage in the genebank. There were also some serious germplasm data issues that needed tackling—but that’s for another blog post, perhaps.
In terms of genebank operations, it was clear that none of the national staff had responsibility (or accountability) for their various activities. In fact, responsibilities for even the same set of tasks, such as germplasm regeneration or characterization, to name just two, were often divided between two or more staff. No-one had the final say. So very quickly I appointed two staff, Flora ‘Pola’ de Guzman and Renato ‘Ato’ Reaño to take charge of the day-today management of the seed collection (and genebank facilities per se) and germplasm regeneration, respectively. Another staff, Tom Clemeno, was given responsibility for all germplasm characterization.
Flora de Guzman
Working in the field
But what seemed rather strange to me was the regeneration of rice germplasm at a site, in rented fields, some 10km east of the IRRI Experiment Station, at Dayap. This meant that everything—staff, field supplies, etc.—had to be transported there daily, or even several times a day. It made no sense to me especially as the institute sat in the middle of a 300 ha experiment station, right on the genebank’s doorstep. In fact, the screenhouse for the wild rice collection had been constructed on one part of the station known as the Upland Farm. To this day I still don’t understand the reasons why Dr Chang insisted on using the site at Dayap. What was the technical justification?
Also the staff were attempting to regenerate the germplasm accessions all year round, in both ‘Dry Season’ (approximately December to May) and the ‘Wet Season’ (June to November). Given that the IRRI experiment station has full irrigation backup, it seemed to me that we should aim to regenerate the rice accessions in the Dry Season when, under average conditions, the days are bright and sunny, and nights cooler, just right for a healthy rice crop, and when the best yields are seen. The Wet Season is characterized obviously by day after day of continuous rainfall, often heavy, with overcast skies, and poor light quality. Not to mention that Wet Season in the Philippines is also ‘typhoon season’. So we separated the regeneration (Dry Season) from the characterization (Wet Season) functions.
But could we do more, particularly with regard to ensuring that only seeds of the highest quality are conserved in the genebank? That is, to increase the longevity of seeds in storage—the primary objective of the genebank, after all, to preserve these rice varieties and wild species for future generations? And in the light of the latest research by Katherine Whitehouse, Fiona and Richard, did we make the right decisions and were we successful?
Seed environment and seed longevity
That’s where I should explain about the research collaboration with Richard Ellis at that time (Ellis et al. 1993; Ellis & Jackson 1995), and helpful advice we received from Roger Smith and Simon Linington, then at Kew’s Wakehurst Place (and associated with the founding of the Millennium Seed Bank).
Dr N Kameswara Rao, now head of the genebank at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) in the UAE-Dubai.
I hired a post-doctoral fellow, Dr N Kameswara Rao, on a two-year assignment from sister center ICRISAT (based in Hyderabad). Kameswara Rao had completed his PhD at Reading under seed physiologist Professor Eric Roberts.
We set about studying the relationship between the seed production environment and seed longevity in storage, and the effect of sowing date and harvest time on seed longevity in different rice types, particularly hard-to-conserve temperate (or japonica) rice varieties (Kameswara Rao & Jackson 1996a; 1996b; 1996c; 1997). And these results supported the changes we had proposed (and some even implemented) to germplasm regeneration and seed drying.
In 1991, the IRG did not have specific protocols for germplasm generation such as the appropriate harvest dates, and seed drying appeared to me to be rather haphazard, hazardous even. Let me explain. Immediately after harvest, rice plants in bundles (stems, leave and grains) were dried on flat bed dryers before threshing, heated by kerosene flames, for several days. Following threshing, and before final cleaning and storage, seeds were dried in small laboratory ovens at ~50C. It seemed to me that rice seeds were being cooked. So much for the 15C/15RH genebank standard for seed drying!
During the renovation of institute infrastructure in the early 1990s we installed a dedicated drying room³, with a capacity for 9000 kg, in which seeds could be dried to an equilibrium 6% moisture content (MC) or thereabouts, after a week or so, under the 15/15 regime.
Now this approach has been apparently turned on its head. Or has it?
To read the headlines in some reports of the Whitehouse et al. paper, you would think that the 15/15 protocol had been abandoned altogether. This is not my reading of what they have to report. In fact, what they report is most encouraging, and serves as a pointer to others who are engaged in the important business of germplasm conservation.
In her experiments, Katherine compared seeds with different initial MC harvested at different dates that were then dried either under the 15/15 conditions, or put through up to six cycles of drying on a batch drier, each lasting eight hours, before placing them in the 15/15 seed drying room to complete the drying process, before different seed treatments to artificially age them and thereby be able to predict their longevity in storage before potential germination would drop to a dangerous level.
This is what Katherine and her co-authors conclude: Seeds harvested at a moisture content where . . . they could still be metabolically active (>16.2%) may be in the first stage of the post-mass maturity, desiccation phase of seed development and thus able to increase longevity in response to hot-air drying. The genebank standards regarding seed drying for rice and, perhaps, for other tropical species should therefore be reconsidered.
Clearly seeds that might have a higher moisture content at the time of harvest do benefit from a period of high temperature drying. Because of the comprehensive weather data compiled at IRRI over decades, Katherine was also able to infer some of the field conditions and seed status of the Kameswara Rao experiments. And although the latest results do seem to contradict our 1996 and 1997 papers, they provide very strong support for the need to investigate this phenomenon further. After all, Katherine studied only a small sample of rice accessions (compared to the 117,000+ accessions in the genebank).
The challenge will be, if these results are confirmed in independent rice studies—and even in other species, to translate them into a set of practical genebank standards for germplasm regeneration and drying and storage for rice. And it must be possible for genebank managers to apply these new standards easily and effectively. After all many are not so fortunate as GRC to enjoy the same range of facilities and staff support.
I’m really pleased to see the publication of this research. It’s just goes to demonstrate the importance and value of research on genebank collections, whatever the crop or species. Unfortunately, not many genebank are in this league, so it behoves the CGIAR centers to lead from the front; something I’m afraid that not all do, or are even able to do. Quite rightly they keep a focus on managing the collections. But I would argue that germplasm research is also a fundamental component of that management responsibility. Brownie points for IRRI for supporting this role for almost a quarter of a century. And for Fiona as well for ensuring that this important work got off the ground. Good luck to Katherine when she comes to defend her thesis shortly.
A recent seminar
On 12 November, Fiona gave a seminar at IRRI in the institute’s weekly series, titled How long can rice seeds stay alive for? In this seminar she explores changes that have been made to genebank operations over the years and the extent to which these did or did not affect the potential longevity of rice seeds in the genebank. She talks in some detail about the benefits of initial ‘high temperature’ drying that appears to increase potential longevity of seeds. As I queried with her in a series of emails afterwards, it’s important to stress that this high temperature drying does not replace drying in the 15/15 drying room. Furthermore, it will be necessary at some stage to translate these research findings into a protocol appropriate for the long term conservation of rice seeds at -18C.
Fiona has graciously permitted me to post her PowerPoint presentation in this blog, and the audio file that goes with it. You’ll have to open the PPT file and make the slide changes as you listen to Fiona speaking. I’ve done this and it’s actually quite straightforward to follow along and advances the slides and animations in her PPT. Click on the image below to download the PPT file. Just open it then set the audio file running.
Here’s the audio file.
I am also pleased to see that the CGIAR genebanks have also established a seed longevity initiative under the auspices of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. You can read more about it here.
Seed storage – an interesting anecdote
In 1992 we implemented the concept of Active (+3-4C) and Base (-18C) Collections in the IRG. Before then all rice seeds were stored in small (20g if I remember correctly) aluminium cans. We retained the cans for the Base Collection: once sealed we could expect that they would remain so for the next 50 years or more. But in the Active Collection there was no point having cans, if they had to be opened periodically to remove samples for distribution, and could not be re-sealed.
So we changed to laminated aluminium foil packs. Through my Roger Smith and Simon Linington we identified a manufacturer in the UK (from near Manchester I believe) who could make packs of different sizes, using a very high quality and tough laminate of Swedish manufacture (originally developed to mothball armaments). It had an extremely low, if not zero, permeability, and was ideal for seed storage. Unfortunately by the time we made contact, the company had gone into liquidation, but the former managing director was trying to establish an independent business. On the strength of a written commitment from IRRI to purchase at least 250,000 packs, and probably more in the future, this gentleman was able to secure a bank loan, and go into business once again. And IRRI received the seed storage packages that it ordered, and still uses as far as I know. The images below show genebank staff handling both aluminium cans in the Base Collection and the foil packs in the Active Collection. You can see the Active Collection in the video below at minute 1:09.
Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton examines seed samples in aluminium cans in the IRG Base Collection.
Aluminium foil packs are used for rice accessions in the IRG Active Collection.
¹ KJ Whitehouse, FR Hay & RH Ellis, 2015. Increases in the longevity of desiccation-phase developing rice seeds: response to high-temperature drying depends on harvest moisture content. Annals of Botany doi:10.1093/aob/mcv091.
² S Crisostomo, FR Hay, R Reaño and T Borromeo, 2011. Are the standard conditions for genebank drying optimal for rice seed quality? Seed Science & Technology 39: 666-672.
³ If you would like to see what the seed drying room looks like, just go to minute 9:40 in the video below:
Last Monday (3 August) I came across an interesting article in The Guardian newspaper here in the UK. It was all about the success—or so it would seem—in developing a vaccine against the Ebola virus, the deadly pathogen that hit three countries in West Africa so dramatically over the past year. In particular, one photo caught my eye, which I have included below (and I hope no-one from The Guardian nor the photographer objects).
From The Guardian 3 August 2015: Six-year-old Cecilia Kamara from Robertsport, Liberia holds up a sign after receiving news about the Ebola vaccine. Photograph: Alphanso Appleton
The development of this Ebola vaccine depended on rigorous scientific research and testing, and a little serendipity and luck as well in some cases. Isn’t science wonderful?
Not a scientist?
So it must come as a bit of surprise if I declare, here and now, that I never aspired to become a scientist, even though that’s what I spent more than 40 years doing. As a youngster, I was never enthralled by the moon and stars; dinosaurs didn’t pique my interest. On the other hand, I was quite a keen bird watcher, and had a general interest in nature and conservation. So while I ended up taking a science degree at the University of Southampton, I guess it could have gone the other way and I might have studied humanities instead. And that’s especially so given my deep interest in history over the past decade or so. I have even considered taking a history degree at the Open University in retirement, but have consigned that to the realm of fantasy. I don’t think I could take the discipline of formal study once again.
Paul Nurse has a passion for science
I can’t complain, however. Science gave me a good career and living, but I never developed a passion for it as described by Nobel laureate and President of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, in the BBC’s Richard Dimbleby Lecture in 2012. It’s really worthwhile persevering for the whole 45 minutes as Nurse delivers a most erudite analysis (without referring to notes at any point) of the importance and relevance of science to and for society.
There’s much of what Sir Paul describes that I can empathize with. After all, my own work on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources was a contribution to so-called ‘Green Revolution’ agricultural research aimed at improving the livelihoods of poor farmers around the world and the hundreds of millions of poor who depend on staple crops for their daily well-being.
Did I do good science?
Only my peers can confirm that. I think I did some competent science that was successfully submitted for publication in internationally-recognized journals. There was nothing I did that was ground-breaking science. But in terms of my contributions to agricultural research, I like to think that fewer people went to bed hungry each night because of the research I had contributed. Managing the world’s largest collection of rice genetic resources in the International Rice Genebank, not only did we study the nature and scope of genetic variation in rice, but we also aimed to enhance the long-term survival of rice seeds in cold storage. The submergence tolerant varieties of rice developed by IRRI in partnership with scientists at the University of California, and now released throughout Bangladesh and India are already enhancing the productivity of rice farming. Several rice germplasm accessions tolerant of complete transient submergence are safely conserved in the International Rice Genebank Collection.
I felt much more comfortable as a research manager, with a team of much more competent and talented colleagues. My role was to develop a broad perspective on research needs, and prioritize which research to undertake. And to provide a research environment where my colleagues could be productive to the best of their abilities. I think that’s where my forte lay.
Design, luck, or serendipity?
Nevertheless, there are several things I was directly involved with, or decisions made, which merit some highlighting, with serendipity playing a significant role. As Sir Paul Nurse pointed out, it’s up to the scientist to recognize the significance of—and then exploit—observations and discoveries made.
My work on bacterial wilt of potatoes at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Costa Rica depended on recognizing the significance of diseased plants in a field trial that was set up originally to test potato varieties for adaptation to warm and humid climates. Having identified ‘resistant‘ plants, as well as the importance of the field testing site, we went on to establish the importance of a particular variety (Cruza 148) that went on to become one of the most important in East Africa.
In work at the University of Birmingham, with my colleagues Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd and Dr Susan Juned, we discovered differential responses of cv. Record clones in terms of somaclone production. But that wouldn’t have been possible had we not taken a simple decision from the outset to number each stock tuber individually, and all the somaclones selected from each.
The application of molecular biology to study germplasm collections has come a long way since a PhD student of mine, Adi Damania, published a paper in 1983 using RAPD markers with wheat and barley landraces. Then, with colleagues at The University of Birmingham (Dr Parminder Virk, Brian, and Professor John Newbury – now at the University of Worcester), we published in 1995 one of the first—if not the first—paper on association genetics, based on studies of accessions in the International Rice Genebank Collection.
The experience of years
I’d like to think that the books I’ve written or edited have also contributed in some way to the discussion about the value of genetic resources and their importance as the planet faces the threat of climate chnage. And some of our thinking goes back to 1989 when the whole idea of climate change was far more contentious than today (unless you’re a Republican presidential hopeful).
The value of research metrics?
Some research has an impact, benefits society directly, other research is much longer-term. How can this be valued? Well, there’s a plethora of metrics to assess the value of published research such as citation indices, and others that frankly I don’t understand the meaning of or how they are calculated and applied. Journals have a so-called ‘Impact Factor’, and there’s great pressure on researchers to publish in high impact journals. Fortunately I never had to worry about these things when I worked at The University of Birmingham in the 1980s, and it was never raised as an issue when I was with IRRI. But there is growing concern about the use—and misuse—of research metrics, as highlighted in a recent article in The Guardian newspaper.
When I was teaching at The University of Birmingham in the 1980s, a monthly bulletin, Teaching News, was circulated to staff, by the School of Education, I believe. There was one article I remember quite vividly discussing the use and misuse of citation indices. Crude numbers don’t tell you anything. And to emphasize the point further, the article went on to compare two articles with very different citation indices. One, with a low index, was a piece of eminent scholarship about rural communities in South Wales, but cited infrequently simply because sociological studies in this field were not frequent. The other, in the crowded field on the rise of Naziism, had a very high index, because it had been cited so often—but mainly in a negative way.
I also saw something from IRRI the other day stating that the ORYZA2000 model had been cited more than 16,000 times in scientific publications. I’m sure most of those citations do reflect a meaningful application of the model, but it would be interesting to see beyond the raw metric.
Science should never be kept in the closet. Knowledge increases as ideas are shared, tested, and accepted or rejected in the course of scientific exploration. While I may not have been a dedicated scientist per se, I can also say “Thank you Science!” It was fun while it lasted.