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Two international crop research centres have launched an initiative intended to give a major boost to researchers developing improved varieties of the world's most important crops — rice, maize and wheat.

The Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico announced the new laboratory and research programme on Monday (23 January).

The Crop Research Informatics Lab (CRIL) will be based at CIMMYT, but will link up with existing IRRI facilities.

CRIL researchers are already developing a system to provide integrated data on all three crops to plant breeders worldwide.

This should make it easier, faster and cheaper to compare the biology and genetics of the three crops, which together provide 60 per cent of global food and cover more than 70 per cent of the planet's productive cropland.

"Not only will this reduce the time needed to develop new crop varieties — because all three are cereals and so share a range of common characteristics — but we also expect it to reduce the cost of such research," says IRRI director general Robert Zeigler.

Zeigler adds that CRIL will also benefit scientists trying to improve varieties of 'orphan crops'. These are species such as millet and sorghum that are of major importance in developing countries but have received little research attention to date.

Graham McLaren, head of the CRIL team and IRRI's senior scientist in biometrics, says the new information system will be "especially useful for researchers in poorer, developing countries who may not normally have access to such detailed information on so many different varieties".

In January 2005, IRRI and CIMMYT formed an alliance to work more closely together (see Crop researchers join forces in hope of bigger harvests).

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