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UK science helps farmers in Africa and India

6 July 2005

As the world’s attention is focused on issues of aid and trade in developing countries, UK researchers have shown how science can improve the lives of farmers in Africa and Asia. Genetic research at a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) sponsored institute has been used by Indian researchers to develop a new strain of pearl millet that is resistant to attack by downy mildew. This fungal disease can wipe out 80 per cent of a harvest of pearl millet, a crop grown widely across the hot, dry regions of Africa and India.

Scientists at the BBSRC-sponsored Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER), together with their partner institutes, created a genetic ‘map’ of pearl millet DNA to show how genes and other known sequences of DNA are arranged on the chromosomes of the plant. The research opened the way to marker assisted development of downy mildew resistant plants – a method of plant breeding much faster than traditional selective breeding techniques. IGER’s Indian partners used the results to rapidly develop a downy mildew resistant type of pearl millet, which is being planted by Indian farmers this summer.

Dr Catherine Howarth, leader of the research project at IGER, said, “Traditional plant breeding methods demand lots of time and money as many generations of plants have to be grown to maturity to test their resistance to a disease. Using marker-assisted selection means we can run a genetic fingerprint on young plants to look for the certain stretch of DNA that means it has the resistance to the disease.”

Researchers at IGER are now looking at developing this approach for other traits of pearl millet, such as drought resistance, to assist farmers in the developing world.


Notes to editors

This research features in the July 2005 issue of Business, the quarterly magazine of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) is one of eight research institutes sponsored by BBSRC.

The research on pearl millet was part of a major international effort that included IGER, the University of Wales Bangor, the John Innes Centre, Norwich and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Patancheru, India

The research was funded by the Department for International Development.


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

External contact

Emma Isherwood, IGER Publicity and Information Officer

tel: 01970 823002


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299

Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382