Chemeda Birhanu Merera

Genetic Improvement of Sorghum for Resistance to Fungal Pathogens


Anthracnose is a widespread disease caused by a fungus that can have devastating effects on sorghum production. It occurs in numerous locations around the world and is especially prevalent in areas of high humidity, including many regions in Africa and the southern United States. Smallholder farmers in Ethiopia and other regions often experience limited access to inputs and fungicide treatment options, leaving them especially vulnerable to anthracnose.


Through innovative genomics approaches paired with in-country breeding teams, disease-resistant sorghum varieties to anthracnose have been quickly developed. One variety, Merera, with up to a 43% yield gain has been officially registered and farmer-level seed distribution and seed multiplication is underway in Ethiopia.


Award Amount

$2,167,707 (2013 - 2023)

Research Team

Tesfaye Mengiste        Chemeda Birhanu
Habtamu Alemu          Getachew Ayana
Demeke Bayable         Gudeta Bedada
Nesrya Bedru               Tamirat Bejiga
Kebede Lemu               Moges Mekonen
Firezer Girma               Habte Nida
Amare Seyoum            Gezahegn Tessema

U.S.A. collaborating institutions

Purdue University
Kansas State University

International collaborating institutions

Ethiopia - Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), Assosa Agricultural Research Center, Bako Agricultural Research Center, Holeta Agricultural Research Center, Jimma Agricultural Research Center, Oromia Agricultural Research Institute, Pawe Agricultural Research Center, Haramaya University

Principal Investigator

Dr. Tesfaye Mengiste

Purdue University
Professor and Associate Department Head of Research
Botany and Plant Pathology
Phone: 765-494-0599

Regional Impact

Ethiopia - East Shewa, North Wollo, Addis Ababa, Arsi, East Harerge, West Gojam, South Tigray, East Tigray

Project Description

The overarching goal of this project is to improve the livelihood of sorghum farmers in the plant disease prone regions of Ethiopia by providing disease-resistant and adapted varieties that also integrate other desirable traits. This project builds on scientific discoveries, disease-resistant germplasm, and networks of collaborators established in the first phase to deliver genotypes that integrate critical traits including wide adaptation, disease resistance and high yield potential. Resistant genotypes identified through multi-year and multi-location field trials in the first phase of this project are already incorporated into the breeding pipeline of the national and regional research institutes. Introgression of disease resistance genes into widely adapted elite materials that are deficient in diseases resistance genes is also underway. These parallel efforts are accelerated to complete the development and release of regionally or nationally adapted varieties that integrate important traits.

To support sorghum improvement in the project target region and beyond, strategic research that focuses on gene discovery and scientific advances is being conducted through genetic and genomics studies of unique resistant materials and populations that have been developed. Genetic resources such as adapted landraces, breeding lines and recombinant inbred populations harboring resistance to foliar and grain disease have been identified and characterized. Genes underlying these traits are being identified to develop molecular marker to support improvement of the crop in Ethiopia and other countries with similar challenges. A collection of Ethiopian sorghum landrace population has been partially characterized, and genotype information generated. Deep phenotyping and sequencing of a core representative set of landraces, defined on the bases of genomic data, is being developed to serve as the main source of traits for future breeding and strategic research, and laying the foundation for a genomics enabled breeding platform. The project incorporates graduate education, short-term training and knowledge enhancing workshops to strengthen the human and institutional capacity of local research institutions.

Progress and Impact

The improved sorghum variety Merera has been officially released from intensive selection of the Ethiopian core collection. Demonstration of this variety is being conducted in five sorghum growing districts of Western Ethiopia, Oromia regional state. Five districts namely Boneya Boshe, WayuTuka, Guto Gida, Ilu Gelan and Chawaka from East Wollega, West Shewa and Buno Bedele Zones are selected based on their potential for sorghum production. From each district, a total of eight farmers were selected from different ‘kebeles’, the smallest administrative unit. A total of 40 farmers were involved for the demonstration of this technology. Demonstrations across districts at all farmers’ fields showed excellent performance at the time of reporting. Farmers research group (FRG) consisting of 15 farmers were established at each kebele. This formalized group will be highly engaged in popularization of Merera.

Regional variety trials precede the variety verification trial in the Ethiopian to support the varietal development and approval scheme. Eithteen sorghum genotypes, including two standard checks, were evaluated under the regional variety trial at multiple locations. The data demonstrated that some genotypes produced high grain yield and displayed better foliar and panicle diseases resistance than the standard check. Two genotypes that produced high grain yield and disease tolerance will be promoted to varietal trials for potential release in 2022. The field performance of the genotypes was excellent. It is expected that at least 1-2 best performing genotypes will be promoted to varietal trials in 2022 cropping season for possible variety release and registration.

The intensive characterization of the 358 Ethiopian core subset of sorghum landraces is being spearheaded in this project. Chemeda Birhanu, a Ph.D. student under this project, is responsible for the extensive data capture of this project in collaboration with personnel from EIAR and regional agricultural research centers. The landraces and appropriate checks (Assosa-1, Adukar, Dagim and Bonsa) were planted in partial replication in 1 row x 4m x 0.75m plot areas in row column arrangements at Bako, Jimma, Haramaya University and Assosa in cropping season. Most of these locations are characterized by high relative humidity, rainfall, and temperature that is conducive to screen for disease resistance. Haramaya represents the Eastern Ethiopian highlands where sorghum is widely grown and sorghum production in the region is impaired by anthracnose. High disease severity and incidence occurs at Haramaya.

Country Coordinator

Dr. Alemu Tirfessa

Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR)

January 25, 2022

In the News: One gene closer to a sorghum Superman

Dr. Tesfaye Mengiste makes the news with both Purdue University and Kansas State University for his latest accomplishments with his SMIL research project. Check out the articles.
January 13, 2022

New technology helps Ethiopian farmers increase sorghum yields

Farmers around the world can follow prescribed agronomic practices to a tee, but when they are up against nature, sometimes they need a step up from technology. The USAID Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sorghum and Millet, SMIL, has discovered how to help Ethiopian farmers increase sorghum viability and yields.

Presentations and Publications

Genetic Resistance to Fungal Pathogens in Sorghum

Mengiste, T., Tessema, G.G., & Nida, H. (March 2021). Genetic Resistance to Fungal Pathogens in Sorghum. Presentation at SMIL 2021 Annual Conference, Virtual

Development of Ethiopian Sorghum Core Subset and its Potential Utilization

Mengiste, T., Ejeta, G., Tirfessa, A., Tessema, G.G., & Nida, H. (March 2021). Development of Ethiopian Sorghum Core Subset and its Potential Utilization. Presentation at SMIL Annual Conference, Virtual