Genetic improvement of Zambian maize (Zea mays L.) populations for resistance to ear rots and a survey of associated mycotoxins.
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Maize ear rots are among the most important impediments to increased maize production in Africa. Besides yield loss, they produce mycotoxins in their host whose contamination has been linked to several human and animal mycoses. The main objectives of the studies reported on in this thesis were (i) to investigate farmer perceptions of maize ear rot disease and prospects for breeding for host plant resistance in Zambia; and (ii) to establish the levels of incidence and extent of maize ear rot infection as well as the level of mycotoxins in the maize crops of smallholder farms in central and southern Zambia; (iii) to appraise the field inoculation techniques and assess them for their suitability for the Zambian environmental conditions, (iv) to determine the combining ability of Zambian maize populations for resistance to ear rot and investigate the genetic basis of this resistance; and (v) to investigate both direct and indirect responses to full-sib selection for ear rot resistance in Zambian maize populations. A participatory rural appraisal (PRA) was conducted in four communities, involving a total of 90 farmers. Participatory methods were used, such as focused group discussions, group interviews, participant scoring and ranking. Farmers ranked and scored the various constraints affecting their maize production in general and the maize ear rots in particular. Ear rots were ranked as the third most important biotic stress and it was evident that although farmers were aware of the disease, they were not aware of mycotoxins. This was reflected in the way they disposed of rotten maize: either by feeding livestock or eating it in periods of hunger. The survey of ear rots and mycotoxins was carried out in the Southern and Central Provinces of Zambia. A total of 114 farms were covered in the survey: maize samples were collected and both ear rot fungi and mycotoxins were isolated. Fusarium and Stenocarpella were the most frequently isolated fungi from smallholder farms. The levels of fumonisins on these farms ranged from 0.05 to 192 ppm, while those of aflatoxins were between 1.5 and 10.6 ppb. In 50% of the farmsteads surveyed, the mycotoxins, i.e. fumonisins and aflatoxins, exceeded the recommended FAO/WHO 1limits of 2 ppm and 2 ppb, respectively. Five field inoculation techniques namely, colonised toothpick, leaf whorl placement, ear top placement, spore suspension spray, and silk channel injection, were evaluated over three seasons in a series of experiments. It was found that the leaf whorl placement of inoculums, followed by colonized toothpick method, gave a constant ranking of genotypes across locations and years compared to the other three methods. In addition, the use of a mixture of ear rots as inoculum was as effective as its principal single species constituents. In the population diallel analysis, five broad-based maize populations were crossed in a diallel and evaluated under artificial ear rot inoculation using an inoculum mixture of three ear rot fungi, Aspergillus flavus, Fusarium verticilloides and Stenocarpella maydis at four locations in Zambia. The purpose was to estimate general (GCA) and specific combining ability (SCA) and investigate genotype x environment interaction. GCA effects were found not to be significant for disease severity but were significant for grain yield across environments. Populations with a strong GCA effect for disease severity across sites included PRA783244c3, Pop25, MMV600, and ZUCASRc2. Across sites, the F1 combinations, MMV600 x Pop25, ZUCASRc2 X Pop25, and Pop25 x PRA783244c2 had strong SCA effects for root lodging, ear drooping, husk cover and ear insect damage. In a related diallel analysis of 10 full-sib families derived from these populations, it was observed that resistant x susceptible families and their reciprocal crosses performed better than their resistant parents, suggesting an over dominant expression of resistance. Both maternal and non maternal effects were observed to be influencing resistance to ear rots. There was a preponderance influence of non-additive gene action. A response to full-sib recurrent selection was conducted in four locations in Central Zambia. Out of the 343 families created in 2005/6 season, 10% were selected from each population and recombined to create five new populations. These, with the original populations, were evaluated in four sites during the 2007/8 season. There was a net reduction in ear rot incidence and rot severity in the new synthetic population. Pop10 had the largest reduction in disease severity. The predicted gain per cycle was -4.1% and realized gain was -2.5% for disease incidence, and 0.19% and 19.4% for grain yield. Genetic variability was maintained though with low heritability estimates. Negative but at times strong association between grain yield and ear rot disease severity was detected suggesting that in general selecting for ear rot resistance would enhance grain yield in the five populations. Overall the importance of the ear rots and mycotoxins in compromising yield and health of the communities in Zambia, respectively, were confirmed and support the call to improve maize varieties for resistance to ear rots. The results indicate that the five populations could be enhanced for ear rot resistance through population improvement procedures such reciprocal recurrent selection that exploit both additive and non-additive variation. Selection might be compromised by the large genotype x environment interaction effects, and large reciprocal effects and their interaction with the environments. To enhance repeatability genotypes should be artificially inoculated, by placing the inoculum in the leaf whorl followed by colonized toothpick inoculation, and screened in many environments to identify genotypes with stable resistance to ear rots.
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