The (new) Age of Steam

Like many boys growing up, I had a fascination with steam locomotives – and although I’m not a fanatic by any stretch of the imagination, it always gladdens the heart to see one of these beautiful machines in full flight. Sadly, on the various heritage railways that have sprung up all over the UK there is a speed limit of only 25 mph. Nevertheless, a visit to one of these railways is an enjoyable day out.

Near my home in Worcestershire, the Severn Valley Railway is a full-size standard-gauge railway line running regular steam-hauled passenger trains for the benefit of visitors and enthusiasts alike between Kidderminster in Worcestershire and Bridgnorth in Shropshire, a distance of 16 miles.

In the summer of 2008, we made a second visit.

DPPC . . . beginning and end

One morning in mid-January 2001, I received a phone call from then IRRI Director General, Ron Cantrell, asking me to drop by his office later that day. I had no idea what it was all about, so I was rather surprised to enter his office and find that the two Deputy Directors General, Ren Wang (Research) and Willy Padolina (Operations and Support Services) were also there.

Well, to cut a long story short, Ron asked me to give up my work as head of the institute’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC) and take up a new position as Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC – originally Planning and Coordination). The rationale behind this was the somewhat dire funding situation of the institute then, and the almost complete lack of comprehensive information about the sources, amounts, and use of the research grants that IRRI had received. What Ron said to me was this: Mike, if a donor offered IRRI USD5 million tomorrow I wouldn’t want to refuse it, but there again I have no idea how it fits into the overall funding picture and commitments of the institute. We need someone to set up a new office whose role will be to bring some order and cohesion to this important set of activities. It appears that some visiting consultants had apparently whispered in Ron’s ear that I might be the sort of person to take on this role.

Well, I had to go away and think about this, and talk it over with Steph. Did I really want to move away from my work in rice genetic resources conservation? Well, for one reason or another, I turned him down – there were several of the terms of reference that I really couldn’t go along with. About six weeks later, one of my senior colleagues let me know that the DG was still interested in having me in the senior management team, so I decided to go and see Ron and discuss some of my concerns. We managed to reach a compromise, and on 1 May 2001 I moved from my office and labs in IRRI Brady Building (where the genebank is housed) to the main administration, FF Hill Building, across the campus.

While there had been an office taking care of donors and funding, I was decidedly unimpressed with what they had achieved, and saw little evidence from my first discussions with them that they would be likely to change. I had already agreed with Ron that I could make some staff changes. My GRC secretary, Zeny Federico, moved over to the DPPC office with me in May, and I began to replace and recruit new staff. One of my first objectives was to try to persuade a soil chemist, Corinta Guerta (whom I had never worked with but who had impressed me immensely when I was on a promotion panel to which she had applied in 1998) to give up her science and join me in a purely administrative role. It took me a couple of months or so, but Corinta joined me in August 2001.

Corints and I set about hiring new staff for the office. Of the original staff when I took over, only Marisol ‘Sol’ Camasin stayed on as the office clerk, until September 2002. Sol was replaced by Analyn Jopia until early 2004, when Vel Hernandez joined the office on a half-time basis (shared with the DDG-Research office). Vel became full time with DPPC in April 2007. In September 2001 we hired Monina La’O as an assistant manager to help develop the donor database. She left in December 2002 to get married and moved away from Los Baños, and was replaced by Sol Ogatis.

Building on Monina’s work, Sol expanded the donor database enormously, and working with Eric Clutario, a database developer, who we hired in October 2001, helped to develop in-house what became the most comprehensive project and donor management system among the CGIAR centers. Sol also left in September 2008 to work for the US Embassy in Manila (I used to tease her that she was going to work for the CIA), and then Marileth ‘Yeyet’ Enriquez joined DPPC in December 2008, and took the project management system from strength-to-strength.

By the time I retired in 2010, there were four full-time staff in the office: Corinta, who as senior manager had been my 2-I-C, assumed leadership for DPPC in January 2010; Zeny, my secretary (now Specialist-Administrative Coordination); Yeyet (now Assistant Manager II); and Vel (now Officer – Database Administration). Our database developer Eric had moved from DPPC to IT Services (ITS) in 2004 to become coordinator of Management Information Systems, but working 35% of his time for DPPC. We felt that this move to ITS would help facilitate and strengthen the links between the various information systems at IRRI and the project management system in DPPC. And it did!

Corinta was appointed head of a new Office for External Relations after my retirement, encompassing the old DPPC (now renamed DRPC) as well as the Development Office, Public Relations Office, and National Programs Relations (although there have recently been – mid-2012 – some organizational changes after the appointment of a new DDG-Communications and Partnerships). In January 2012, Corinta was appointed a Director of the institute – a fitting recognition for someone who joined IRRI as a research assistant in 1975!

The processes and procedures we put in place, the databases and web site we built, and the rigorous assessment of donors and funding opportunities permitted DPPC to facilitate the generation of significant funding for IRRI. We developed a close and clear relationship with the donor community, and they got to know us as well, such that we could send an email or pick up the phone and get an immediate response (or more or less). IRRI’s reputation with the donors rose significantly, and the institute moved from a USD30 million to a USD65 million organization, raising funds from a wider pool of donors including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

As Director for Program Planning and Communications I also had line management responsibility for five units: Communication & Publication Services (CPS), headed by Gene Hettel from the USA; the Library & Documentation Services (LDS), headed by Mila Ramos (now retired), Philippines; ITS, headed by Marco van den Berg, the Netherlands; the Development Office, which is the philanthropy side of IRRI, headed by Duncan Macintosh, Australia; and Program Planning, headed by Corinta Guerta, Philippines, seen left to right in the photo below.

On my last day at IRRI, 30 April 2010, the DPPC staff enjoyed a last merienda together at IRRI’s coffee shop, The Bean Hub, shown in the photo below, L-R: Eric, Zeny, Corinta, me, Vel, and Yeyet.

Each Christmas, we’d get together as an office group and head off to a nice restaurant somewhere, or to my home for a barbecue, to enjoy each other’s company over a meal. In 2004, I took the team to Antonio’s, rated as one of the finest restaurants in Asia, in Tagaytay overlooking Lake Taal and its volcano. We had a wonderful meal, and this is one of my favorite photos of the DPPC team at that time (L to R: me, Sol, Eric, Corints, Vel, and Zeny).

Cruza 148 . . . the serendipity of disease resistance

Just do a Google search on “Cruza 148” and and you will see more than 1,350 hits. Even Google Scholar generates more than 100 publications that make reference to Cruza 148. How did this potato clone from Mexico achieve its celebrity status? It is known for its resistance to bacterial wilt and late blight, and that it has been released in Burundi (as Ndinamagara), Uganda (as Cruza), Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Indeed, CIP scientist Greg Forbes reported in 2006 that it’s grown in the ‘poorest of poor areas’, and suggested that Cruza 148 is ‘the Superman of potatoes’. So how was this potato clone discovered, and what steps were taken to validate its resistance to bacterial wilt?

I spent my first three years with CIP in Lima, but in mid-1976 Dick Sawyer posted me to then Region II (Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean), to undertake research on adaptation of the potato to the lowland tropics, as part of the the Regional Research Program (formerly Outreach). So I landed in Turrialba, Costa Rica at the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE), where I was to remain for the next four and a half years, supported first by Head of Outreach Dick Wurster and then by Ken Brown after Dick left CIP. Deputy Director General-Research Ory Page was also keen to establish some specific research projects in the regions.

After refurbishing a screen-house and office space, and hiring a couple of field assistants, Jorge Aguilar and Moises Pereira, and getting to know the region, I finally started my research. I received a batch of 207 late blight resistant clones from CIP’s regional office in Toluca, Mexico that were planted in a first trial in July 1977 on the CATIE experiment station. There had been no cultivation (at least for more than 20 years) of any solanaceous crops [1]. Each clone was planted in a 5-hill plot, in a randomized complete block, with just a single plot replication per clone.

There was no problem with initial growth of all clones, despite the rather warmer and wetter growing conditions in Turrialba. But after a few weeks we noticed, in just one of two plants, the first signs of the asymmetrical wilt typical of bacterial wilt (Ralstonia solanacearum, formerly known as Pseudomonas solanacearum).

I was fortunate that I had a contact, Dr. Luis Carlos Gonzalez, in the Universidad de Costa Rica – Laboratorio de Fitopatología, an acknowledged expert in bacterial wilt who had completed his PhD studies under Professor Luis Sequeira at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Luis Carlos soon confirmed the presence of bacterial wilt, and we took steps to carefully map the spread of the disease across all plots. Each week we carefully scored the presence/absence of wilt in every plant, and built up a comprehensive picture of the development of the disease among the clones under evaluation. But that mapping also showed us where there could be hotspots in the trial plots. After some 12 weeks or so, almost all of the clones were dead – except three apparently resistant, one of which was Cruza 148. Eight further clones showed only some slight symptoms of bacterial wilt.

Our first question was whether these disease-free clones had somehow escaped infection, even though we had the evidence that the disease was spread right across the site, and in the clones surrounding ‘resistant’ ones. Fortunately all three did produce a good crop of tubers, which we harvested and stored for future evaluation. After chitting we were ready for a second evaluation. We decided to use the same site on the experiment station, carefully tilling and mixing the soil to  ensure that the potatoes we planted would come into contact with the bacterium. Not long after sprouting, the two Indian varieties (I don’t remember the clone numbers, but hopefully our original data and reports, even the plot maps, are still filed away somewhere at CIP) succumbed to wilt, but Cruza 148 remained healthy, showing no signs of bacterial wilt.

We repeated the evaluation for a third time, using tubers harvested from the second evaluation plots. And once again in this third trial – in the same soil – Cruza 148 showed no signs of infection. But where had the resistance to bacterial wilt come from, and why was there such a high inoculum of the bacterium in these soils on the CATIE experiment station? Now although bananas were grown at CATIE, we did show that the bacterial strain was not the one that infected bananas, but Race 1 (as it was then classified).

It also happened that Luis Sequeira (a Costarrican by birth) was holidaying in Costa Rica and visited our plots in Turrialba. And very quickly, and based on his broader experience, he spotted a number of common weeds, family Asteraceae [1, 2] that were wilting.

We collected samples, and undertook all the appropriate phytopathological tests to show that extracts from these weeds were pathogenic on potato. That finding led to us develop a research project looking at the persistence of the bacterium in these Turrialba soils, and how the incidence of bacterial wilt could be reduced through various agronomic practices.

Reports about Cruza 148 are still being published 34 years after its potential was first uncovered in those early Turrialba trials. Now, we know that it is a carrier of the bacterium, which is rather a disappointment. But Cruza 148 has been used a standard control variety in hundreds of disease resistance experiments, and Peter Schmiediche was one of the first CIP breeders to include Cruza 148 in his program. And as far as I know it is still grown in those central African countries. Even if it has been replaced, it achieved impact for many years providing important food for many farmers and their families. I remember discussing Cruza 148 with Jim Bryan. He pointed out that one of  its disadvantages was the coloured flesh, and that it would be unlikely to be adopted by farmers. We now know that was not the case. In fact I have read some reports that farmers in Burundi use the tuber flesh colour to identify tubers of Ndinamagara!

Cruza 148 is one of those happy accidents of germplasm evaluation – you sometimes never know just what might turn up. Maybe it’s not a ‘Superman’ but, rather by chance, it has played a significant role in confronting a serious disease of potatoes, and contributing to food security.

[1] Jackson, M.T., L.C. González & J.A. Aguilar, 1979. Avances en el combate de la marchitez bacteriana de papa en Costa Rica. Fitopatología 14, 46-53.

[2] Jackson, M.T. & L.C. González, 1981. Persistence of Pseudomonas solanacearum (Race 1) in a naturally infested soil in Costa Rica. Phytopathology 71, 690-693.

The images below show bacterial wilt in a mature potato plant, with the typical asymmetrical wilt, and the vascular system of the tuber exuding millions of bacterial cells.