Mitiku Mengistu and a fellow graduate student examine teff grass at the Nevada Agriculture Experiment Station. (Photo by Whip Villarreal)

Source: University of Nevada-Reno

RENO, Nev. – A project to improve teff grass, a staple grain that originated in Ethiopia, is underway at the University of Nevada-Reno.

The aim is to make it more drought tolerant and productive under the harsh growing conditions being experienced worldwide as the popularity of this gluten-free grain grows with farmers and consumers in dry regions of the U.S.

"Teff is an emerging crop in Nevada with about 1200 acres grown each year," said John Cushman, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in CABNR’s Department of Biochemistry and graduate program director. "Teff is now in high demand as a highly nutritious, gluten-free grain suitable for consumption by gluten-intolerant persons."

"As demand for this crop increases it make sense for us to develop better varieties with increased drought tolerance and yield stability under drier conditions. Another advantage of teff is that the remaining crop biomass can be used as a forage grass or harvested for animal fodder."

The research project, which should continue for at least four years, is aligned with the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture's focus on global food security and hunger. It also draws upon expertise of state, federal, and international scientists, and includes public/private partnerships.

"Teff improvement is important for growers and consumers in Nevada, the nation, and the world," Bill Payne, Dean of the College of Agriculture, Biochemistry, and Natural Resources, said. "You will see more multidisciplinary, collaborative projects like this designed to have an impact on people's lives."

Ultimately, researchers aim is to improve the economic viability of teff as an alternative food and forage crop in Nevada, other parts of the U.S. and elsewhere across the world. The project takes a scientific approach that includes molecular genetics, agronomy, weed science and plant breeding.

Basic genetic research to improve teff is being led by Cushman, and the team of researchers on the project will use cutting-edge tools in molecular biology to improve the crop's drought and heat tolerance to stave off the projected effects of global climate change.

The research team is also working on genetic and agronomic feild crop and soil management approaches to make the crop less prone to lodging. Lodging occurs when stems break and the crop falls over in the field. When lodging occurs, a significant proportion of the seed cannot be harvested.

Lodging can cause significant economic loss for the crops that are grown in Nevada, and can cause food shortages in Ethiopia, where it is consumed by 85% of the population as part of their diet. The multi-grain, which is high in protein, calcium and iron, substitutes for traditional flour, has a very mild nutty flavor and is commonly used in baked goods, breads and cereals.

Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest countries, is suffering from a severe drought, which threatens this year's teff crop and the food security of millions of people. It is grown there as a staple grain for human consumption and as a forage crop for livestock.

Mitiku Mengistu, who has considerable expertise with teff, was recently recruited into Cushman's lab. He previously worked at Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Center in Ethiopia, which has that nation's mandate for teff improvement.

Mengistu hopes that working on this project will help reduce teff lodging while helping those who depend on the crop to use fewer resources while producing it.

"I'm happy to work on this project because it addresses problems affecting the vast majority of Ethiopian farmers who are suffering from the crops flaws, especially those who are in drought-prone areas. Mengistu said. "It should also help farmers in the U.S."

The research team includes Cushman, Juan Solomon, assistant professor of forage agronomy and Jay Davison, alternative crop and forage specialist, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, Fallon; Melvin J. Oliver Supervisory Research Geneticist at the United States Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (USDA/ARS); and Pat and Ellen Maxon of Maxell HyBrids providing plant breeding statistical expertise. The project is also supported by Hatch Act funds totaling $45,930.

"The partnership aspects of this are very important to the project," Payne said. "They serve to illustrate how, despite scant resources, we can move forward to achieve a greater impact for global food security for millions of people."