Developing corn hybrids through conventional plant breeding is a long process. The first step is to create a homozygous or genetically ‘pure’ line of corn by self-pollinating one plant for five to eight generations. This involves waiting until the plant has grown to maturity in the field, self-pollinating, and beginning the process over again. Depending on the number of growing seasons at your field location (and many other factors), this process can take three to eight years to complete. Once you have two versions of these homozygous corn plants -- then you can begin the process of hybridization.
But a special plant line called a haploid inducer has revolutionized plant breeding. Instead of taking five to eight generations, scientists can use this line to create a homozygous plant in two generations and within one year. The problem is getting your hands on one; the line can cost upwards of $30,000. But Abdalla Dao would like to create a haploid inducer line, and use it to improve corn breeding in his home country of Burkina Faso.
Abdalla has come to Iowa State University (ISU) to work on achieving this goal as part of the Norman E. Borlaug International Agricultural Science and Technology Fellowship Program. He will spend three months at ISU working with Dr. Thomas Lubberstedt, Professor and K.J. Frey Chair in Agronomy and Director of the R.F. Baker Center for Plant Breeding. Abdalla applied to the Borlaug fellowship as a scientist at Burkina Faso’s Environmental and Agricultural Research Institute, which has been recognized by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization for its contribution to plant breeding.
During his time at Iowa State, Abdalla has three goals. First, he would like to ‘develop a strategy plan to enhance maize breeding in Burkina Faso.’ Next, he would like to write a research proposal to fund the continued enhancement of his Institute’s breeding program, which includes taking steps to produce a haploid inducer line. And lastly, he wants to learn. As he puts it, ‘I want to enhance my understanding of plant breeding. So I have been attending the courses that Thomas teaches and other seminars.’
Abdalla is particularly interested in developing a haploid inducer line because one has yet to be created that is adapted to a tropical climate like Burkina Faso. Improving corn or maize production is a major priority of the government of Burkina Faso as well as the West African Economic and Monetary Union, both of which believe that corn is ‘a strategy crop for food security achievement.’ The majority of farmers in Burkina Faso grow sorghum and ‘the second used to be millet, but now maize is beginning to replace it. In terms of production, maize is the second most produced in Burkina Faso,’ says Abdalla. But Burkina Faso has a long dry season and agriculture is almost entirely rainfed, so Abdalla is interested in developing a drought tolerant corn variety. That is one reason why Abdalla is happy to combine forces with Dr. Lubberstedt, who has expertise in maize breeding and recently launched a Doubled Haploid Facility at ISU.
Abdalla arrived at Iowa State in early February, but he is not new to studying in different countries. After completing his undergraduate degree in Burkina Faso, he did his Masters degree in Senegal, and his PhD in Ghana. Abdalla also spent six months in the US as part of President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative. ‘It is an initiative,’ describes Abdalla ‘which brings young Africans, who have shown the skill of leadership, to be trained in the USA.’ At the conclusion of that experience, Abdalla even had the opportunity to attend a Town Hall with President Barack Obama, and shake First Lady Obama’s hand.
Abdalla will return to Burkina Faso on the first of May, and before he leaves Iowa State he wants ‘to try and get inspiration from what you are doing here.’ He has big goals for improving plant breeding at his Institute in Burkina Faso. He wants to use every minute at ISU to ‘discuss with professors and attend courses,’ go to professional meetings and ‘get some ideas about how I can improve my program.’ The day I met with Abdalla he was preparing to give a seminar to the Agronomy Department, he had just returned from a meeting in Illinois, and was preparing to leave for another conference in Florida. Abdalla is certainly making the most of the opportunity the Borlaug Fellowship has offered him, and is using every minute to his advantage.
Story and photos courtesy of Catherine DeLong