2016 Fall Borlaug LEAP fellow Mitiku Asfaw Mengistu obtained his BS in Plant Sciences and his MS in Applied Genetics from Alemaya and Addis Ababa Universities, respectively, in Ethiopia. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nevada – Reno (UNR). His project focuses on improving tef by using cutting-edge biotechnological approaches. Tef is the most important grain crop in Ethiopia, where it serves as major staple food for more than two-thirds of the residents of Africa’s second most populous nation. Despite gaining wide popularity across the globe for its immense nutritional and health benefits, the productivity of tef remains significantly impaired by lodging and drought. Mitiku’s project was initiated with the overarching goal of boosting tef productivity with the application of innovative biotechnological solutions. Considering that much of Ethiopia’s vast arable land is covered with tef each year, enhancing the productivity of this crop would have a significant impact on the country’s food security and would improve the livelihoods of farmers and stakeholders along the entire tef value chain.
Mitiku’s research experience began in late 2002 when he joined the Amhara Regional Agricultural Research effort based at the Adet Agricultural Research Center. Initially responsible for development of improved rice varieties for different agro-ecologies of Ethiopia, he soon became a tef breeder with the aim of improving tef productivity within the Amhara region. In addition, he worked as a director for crops research at the Adet Agricultural Research Center and has contributed to the development of several improved varieties of rice and tef and recommendations for superior agronomic practices for commercial production in Ethiopia. He then moved to the National Tef Improvement Project at the Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Center where he again served as a tef breeder. Since the late 1950’s, the National Tef Improvement Project has developed more than thirty improved tef varieties, which has increased tef productivity by 30%, but none were found to be lodging resistant. Thus, susceptibility to lodging remains a challenge and an important target for future tef improvement studies.
Mitiku’s US mentor, Dr. John Cushman, is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of the University of Nevada – Reno. The Cushman lab focuses on improving the abiotic stress tolerance of plants and in the development of more water-efficient food and bioenergy crops including tef. Mitiku’s CGIAR mentor, Dr. Adamu Molla, is a senior agronomist at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). Dr. Molla will supervise Mitiku’s training and hands-on practice at the Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Center. He will also provide timely organization and ensure the successful delivery of training on tef floral biology and the efficient completion of genetic crosses. Mitiku plans to complete his PhD in Spring 2019.