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[NAIROBI] A modern research facility to help accelerate research and development in Sub-Saharan Africa, including the development of maize varieties that resist Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN), is to be established in Kenya.

The doubled haploid maize facility will be set up by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) at one of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute stations. It will be the only one of its kind in Africa.

In doubled haploid plants, each cell contains two identical copies of the genetic material. Doubled haploids are used to speed up breeding programmes for high yielding plant lines. The new facility is also expected to use a technique called molecular marker assisted breeding to quickly develop disease resistance in the plants.

"The technology can help halve the time taken to develop resistant versions of existing elite susceptible lines," says Boddupalli Prasanna, director of CIMMYT's global maize programme.

The new facility was announced earlier this month (1 July) in Kenya at a disease training event for maize scientists drawn from Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Prasanna says that the facility will be operational by September.

He says the team behind the facility "is also making intensive effort to identify molecular makers in germplasm for MLN resistance that can help accelerate development of elite resistant maize varieties".

The facility, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the tune of US$1.2 million, could boost maize farming on the continent as it will produce breeding lines to serve the whole region using modern molecular techniques.

Prasanna says seed production nurseries will be developed at selected locations in Africa where MLN has not been found and will be routinely monitored to ensure they stay disease-free.

CIMMYT will make MLN resistant seeds available to African countries where the disease is already found, but seed will not be sent to countries where MLN is yet to be reported.

The disease is caused by a double infection of maize plants by two viruses: maize chlorotic mottle virus and sugarcane mosaic virus. It was first spotted in Kenya in September 2011.

Joseph Ngetich, assistant director of agriculture and head of the crops protection division in Kenya's Ministry of Agriculture, tells SciDev.Net that the country has lost a substantial amount of maize to the disease despite the government spending US$113,000 raising awareness among agricultural staff and the public.

The disease has also caused massive losses in Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.

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