Picture Eric 1As Dr. Eric completed his PhD, he needed a platform to begin his career as scientist. Most early career scientists have to travel abroad to hold a PhD position. Through the Carnegie supported Postdoctoral Fellowship, RUFORUM gave him the opportunity to begin research in his home institution and more importantly to build a research team and develop skills in supervision of graduate students. Wanting to make it an opportunity of two birds killed with one stone, he chose to put up a breeding program on kersting’s groudnut [Macrotyloma geocarpum (Harms) Maréchal & Baudet]. It is a neglected crop of importance in West Africa and Benin.

The fellowship project  

Themed “Towards developement of market-led kersting’s groudnut [Macrotyloma geocarpum (Harms) Maréchal & Baudet] varieties in Benin”, the project aims to produce knowledge that will enable develop improved cultivars of kersting’s groudnut that meet the market demand. The project i) assessed genetic diversity within the available germplasm collection, ii) screened for resistance to storage bruchids, iii) used DArTseq platform to genotype kersting’s groundnut accessions and study diversity, iv) assessed prospects for high throughput phenotyping of yield parameters, v) studied the crop’s phenology and reproductive biology that would inform best ways to perform crosses vi) investigated techniques for kersting’s groudnut seed production, testing seed health, keeping ability to storage and germination capacity and vigour, and vii) investigated ways to expand shelflife of grains in storage.

These inclusive activities toward the achievement of the overall goal are implemented by graduate students, each handling different components of the overall work. That approach has been chosen for its double benefit, as it enables graduate students to implement their Thesis research while contributing to the achievement of a development goal as a whole.

In pratical terms, one PhD research focusing on inheritance of yield and yield components of kersting’s groundnut, used the most current genomic tool Diversity Arrays Technology (DArT) to genotype 237 DNA samples isolated from the same number of accessions. The accessions were collected from different countries including Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Togo with Benin being the main provider (over hundred and fifty accessions). The genotype data generated is useful to assess genetic diversity and conduct genome-wide association studies (GWAS) on specific traits of importance, including yield components. Besides, the student conducted surveys among 305 kersting’s groundnut farmers to understand the constraints hindering the crop’s production and how much yield is achieved by farmers and the socio-demographic factors that influence cropping system of kersting‘s groundnut. He deployed Unmanned aerial vehicle (drones) to provide high throughput phenotyping tools using (UAV)-based multispectral imagery. He investigated the phenology of kersting’s groundnut at both vegetative and reproductive phases and how flower is initiated, develops, matures and fruits. He investigated pollen maturity and germination periods.

PhD student 1_ making crosses on Kersting’s Groundnut (Macrotyloma geocarpum)

PhD student 1_ making crosses on Kersting’s Groundnut (Macrotyloma geocarpum)

The second PhD student surveyed over 300 famers to understand the kersting’s groundnut grain storage conditions in rural settings. He collected 80 samples from farmers’ granaries which he assessed for seed physiological quality, seed germination and vigour tests in laboratory. Also he conducted lab experiments for seed health analysis (fungi and bacteria infestation) to evaluate the infection frequency and incidence as influenced by the handling technics and the collection location. He also assessed how long can be the shelflife of kersting’s groundnut grains using the traditional techniques. He tested seed morphology versus germination characteristics, effect of seed size on viability and vigour, effect of production techniques on seed yield, quality and storability, effect of harvest period and drying methods on seed composition and physiological quality. The student investigated which local storage technics proove the best, how long do the technics keep the grains and how much germination capacity and vigour seeds can keep under such conditions.

PhD student 2_Incubating plates for seeds pathogenic fungi and bacteria detection on Kersting’s Groundnut (Macrotyloma geocarpum) collected from the informal seed system

PhD student 2_Incubating plates for seeds pathogenic fungi and bacteria detection on Kersting’s Groundnut (Macrotyloma geocarpum) collected from the informal seed system

One Master student has completed his research Thesis on morphological characterization of kersting’s groundnut. He conducted field experiment in Djidja, the most important kersting’s groudnut producing area of Benin and collected data on thirty four (34) morphological descriptors, including 22 quantitative and 12 qualitative traits. He defended brilliantly his Thesis and received the highest distinction.

Another Master student collected grain samples from the main kersting’s groudnut markets of Benin, the samples were kept in laboratory for about 80 days to identifiy invading insect-pests. Insect-pests identification was done in the Insectarium at IITA-Benin. Thereafter, he screened 86 kersting’s groundnut accessions for resistance to bruchids (callosobruchus maculatus), the identified most harmful storage insect pest. This was done using mass rearing of insect in Lab conditions at the University of Abomey-calavi. Activities in the Lab include eggs and insect counts to compute medium development period (MDP) and Dobbie Susceptibility Index (DSI). These enabled identify two accessions with resistance to bruchids. He also defended brilliantly his Thesis. In addition to the graduate students, four memories from undergraduate students have been developed and brilliantly defended.


The Project’ outcomes

This postdoc project has enabled achieve good results: UAV experiment was carried out and it came out clearly that multispectral imagery has potential to allow estimates of vegetation indices (VIs) yield components at different growth stages of the crop, thus enabling high throughput phenotyping of yield traits in kersting’s groudnut. Floral biology and phenology study was performed and showed useful information on size, anatomy and development scheme of reproductive organs. The various stages of floral development and fruiting have been described and illustrated. The optimum moment for emasculating flowers and making crosses is understood. Surveys with farmers revealed that kersting’s groundnut cropping system is influenced by sociodemographic factors and calendars for cropping activities slightly vary from one production zone to another. Also it was found that constraints to be addressed include the development of improved varieties and sustainable seed system for the crop. The development of proper agronomic practices and steady cropping calendars that allow cultivation in the longer rainy season would reduce loss due to difficult harvesting during dry season. Identification of storage pests of kersting’s groudnut revealed bruchids callosobruchus maculatus and its parasitoids dinarmus basalis as the main insect species that populate kersting’s groudnut grain in storage. Besides, two accessions were found to show resistance to storage bruchids. TK9-1 from Ghana was highly resistant and Sag1 from Benin was moderately resistant. These accessions are potential parental lines that can be used in breeding programs. Morphological characterization of 81 accessions was also done, which exhibited four clusters based on the 34 quantitative and qualitative traits. Experiments on seed production techniques has shown some significant insights in plant spacing, fertilisation regime, harvest periods, weeding periods, planting season, etc.

As for the deliverables, the project has generated so far, two Master Theses, four Memories from undergraduates, four scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals, five manuscripts under peer-review and six other manuscripts under active preparation. Beyond the routine Research implementation and Thesis preparation, during this fellowship, specific emphasis was put on mentoring the PhD students to chase for additional funds and attend workshop trainings and short courses for their professional growth. Hence, so far the two PhD students have benefitted from grants from four donor institutions such as TWAS, IFS, RUFFORD, Global Partners. They both have attended four workshop trainings viz Molecular Biology Training & Open Labware Building Workshop from 1st to 5th April 2019 at University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin, Integrated Seed Sector Development course from 06th to 24th May 2019 at Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation in Netherlands, Marker Assisted breeding and Genomic selection training from 1st to 30th September 2019 at BeCA- ILRI in Nairobi Kenya, and Complex Traits Analysis of Next Generation Sequencing Data from 11th to 15th, November 2019 at Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medecine Berlin, Germany. Also they participated in international conferences to deliver oral and poster presentations in Nairobi, Kenya, and Montpelier, France.

Insights for the Postdoc Fellow

Walking through this journey is a continuous learning process that is leading to my rapid professional growth. I had to deal with some conflictual and difficult situations, some of which: arguments between fellow students or between students and workers, contradicting advise/comments from co supervisors, failure to meet deadlines and in some instances students tend to be very slow or show inaptitude to deliver a planned milestone, etc. I was able to deal with such situations drawing from the close mentorship I have received and more importantly, using the tools I have acquired during the Leadership Enhancement Program for Agricultural Research and Development (LEPARD) course that RUFORUM has sponsored me to attend. Also through this fellowship, I had the opportunity to develop professional networks during gatherings, and through exchange with senior colleagues to seek for lab facilities or outsource lab services from renowned institutions such as African Plant Breeding Academy (AfPBA) of UC Davis, ILRI-BeCA, Labs in the US and other CGIAR and NARs within and outside the country. My supervision skill has been thoroughly enhanced and I got more visible to the National Agricultural Research System in Benin and other well known research institutes worldwide. This fellowship also put me in light to the actors in NARs and this has led to bigger research opportunities.

Conclusion and recommendations

Overall, the fellowship has been a great opportunity that enriches the career development of fellows. It is a well thought funding scheme that has a double advantage of providing research platform to both graduate students and Postdoc Fellow, but also enables the Fellow to handle students, develop strategies to deals with difficult and conflictual situations and above all enhance his supervision skills. In addition, in the case of Benin, it is a good starting point for a research career, as this offers opportunity to justify the Fellow’s ability to manage grants and be a research PI. Hence, the Postdoctoral scheme is a boulevard to career development for me as a young researcher. It would be useful to allow more time for the fellowship, so as to enable completion of the PhD Theses, and to enable Fellow to have more time to push to publication most of the papers that are been generated from the research project. Pushing forward, this fellowship could lead to release of some of the promising kersting’s groudnut lines that have been identified. It would also provide opportunity for more Master students to get on board, hence more Theses and papers to be generated.

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