Abstract & Bio
 Title: “ Modernizing plant breeding programs to deliver higher rates of genetic gain in the developing world ”




Dr Gary Atlin 



Senior Program Officer& Crop Productivity Functional Team Lead
Agricultural Research and Development,
Global Development
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation


New breeding technologies and management approaches have revolutionized plant breeding in commercial cropping systems in temperate countries, but these have not been widely applied in public plant breeding programs in the developing world.  These programs will provide smallholder farmers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America with seed of the self-pollinated, open-pollinated, and vegetatively-propagated crops on which they depend for many years to come.  Rates of genetic gain generated by breeding programs and delivered to farmers, although rarely measured, appear to be very low.  Most public plant breeding programs have cycle times that are too long, spend too much on line extraction through ineffective pedigree breeding, are not optimized with respect to advancement rates and allocation of testing resources, do not have access to an integrated breeding informatics database, make no use of DNA markers in forward breeding, lack formal product concepts, and do not generate enough high-quality data to confidently recommend and promote their products as being clearly superior to varieties in use.  It is critical that public sector breeding programs modernize both their breeding technology and their management methods if rates of genetic gain high enough to feed still-growing populations in the face of climate change are to be achieved. The key metrics by which breeding programs and seed systems in developing countries need to be assessed are (i) the rate of genetic gain they deliver in farmers’ fields, and (ii) the average age of varieties in farmers’ fields.  The Gates Foundation is supporting several initiatives to provide support on breeding strategy, breeding informatics tools, low cost genotyping, pipeline optimization, and dissemination planning to CGIAR and national breeding programs. 


Dr. Gary Atlin, a Canadian national, studied crop science at the University of Guelph, and was a technician in the maize breeding program there for several years. His first experience in international agricultural research was as a research associate in the potato program at CIP in Peru. His PhD work in oats at Iowa State focused on the design of breeding programs for stressful environments. After graduating, he worked as a commercial flax breeder in Canada. He then taught plant breeding at Nova Scotia Agricultural College for ten years, developing a theoretical framework for managing genotype x environment interaction in breeding programs. In 2000, he joined IRRI as upland rice and then rainfed lowland rice breeder, establishing IRRI’s drought tolerance trait pipeline, which identified the first rice QTLs with large effects on yield under drought stress. He joined CIMMYT in 2006 as a maize breeder, and became technical breeding lead in 2009, coordinating efforts to optimize CIMMYT’s maize pipelines to increase genetic gains. Throughout his career, he has combined practical cultivar development (his programs have released several widely-used rice, maize, and flax lines) with theoretical work on maximizing rates of genetic gain in stress-prone environments (over 50 publications in refereed journals). In 2012, he joined the Gates Foundation as a Senior Program Officer in the Agricultural Development Initiative. He is now the crop productivity lead within the R&D team, coordinating the foundation’s investment’s aiming to increase the rate of genetic gain delivered to smallholders in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia