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Tesso joins Purdue Agriculture faculty

Purdue will be gaining an internationally renowned expert in sorghum breeding this semester when Tesfaye Tesso of Kansas State University joins the College of Agriculture’s Department of Agronomy. Tesso’s work on sorghum, an African staple that’s gaining attention worldwide for its nutritional and fuel potential, will help further Purdue’s commitment to fighting hunger.

“We are extremely pleased to welcome Tesfaye Tesso to our college’s faculty,” said Bernie Engel, Glenn W. Sample Dean of Agriculture. “He has earned international recognition for his research accomplishments and advances in the area of sorghum genetics.”

“Dr. Tesso joins an incredible team of Purdue plant geneticists who are making a tremendous difference in addressing issues of global food security,” said Patrick Wolfe, Purdue University’s Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Diversity. “I applaud the College’s effort to recruit outstanding scholars such as Dr. Tesso.”

Tesso was raised in rural western Ethiopia, where his family farmed and raised animals. Most of what they produced was for the family to eat; any leftover was sold at market. The village school ended after elementary, and Tesso traveled to another town for middle and high school. After taking his national university entrance exams, he was assigned to Alemaya University of Agriculture, now Haramaya University.

There, Tesso decided to study plant science and specialize in plant breeding.

tesfaye-tesso.jpg“For me, what really touched my interest was that the art of growing crops was something I grew up with as
a child,” he says. “Putting another layer of science onto that made sense for me.”

He discovered he loved the research, loved the lab work. “Plant science is one of the disciplines that touches every part of basic science,” he says.

Still, as he approached graduation his only thought was about returning to his home region, some 800 kilometers away, to help his single mother. “I did not have any idea of going further professionally than my BS degree,” he says.

So it was a surprise when the university recruited him to stay on as faculty.

“I quickly turned it down,” he says. “I said I cannot, I want to get closer to my mom. I had to be asked many times over the next few weeks to even consider it.”

Only after the university agreed to assign him to the National Tef Improvement Program, based in a location closer to his hometown did he accept the offer. He spent seven years there studying tef, the grain that’s a staple of Ethiopian cuisine.

Then, in 1998, he had the opportunity to come to the US as an International Atomic Energy Agency fellow, working on plant tissue culture at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. While there he was recruited to pursue a PhD at Kansas State University, working on sorghum breeding under Mitch Tuinstra, now at Purdue. After finishing his PhD, he came to Purdue for a one-year postdoc, working with Distinguished Professor of Agronomy and National Medal of Science winner Gebisa Ejeta and Distinguished Professor of Food Science Bruce Hamaker.

Tesso would have liked to stay longer at Purdue, but visa issues required that he return to Ethiopia. He spent the next 4.5 years leading the country’s National Sorghum Improvement Program. He was eventually recruited to join the faculty at Kansas State.

Tesso explains his focus on sorghum.

“In developing countries, it’s a critically important crop,” he says. “It’s a crop that grows well under poor management conditions – drought, or when the farmer cannot afford to apply fertilizer. It adapts to dry and low-nutrient soil. It sustains life for the cash strapped smallholder farmers in Africa and beyond.”

Though sorghum is not widely consumed in the West, new research is showing its immense potential.

“It has lots of health benefits,” Tesso says. “It’s rich in antioxidants – it is believed to have as much polyphenols as blueberries. It also has a low glycemic index compared to other cereals, so it’s good for diabetics, it won’t cause a blood sugar spike. It’s a poor man’s crop, but it’s also a good healthy crop for the developed world.”

The nutritional quality research started as a postdoc at Purdue has led to Tesso’s work on developing high-yield sorghum hybrids with significantly enhanced protein and essential amino acid profiles. These qualities – higher yield and enhanced nutrition – are both incredibly important for the populations who rely on sorghum.

“Those poor farmers don’t have a means to supplement diet with animal proteins or even legumes,” Tesso says.

And because sorghum is a small crop that until recently has been considered to have little commercial potential, corporations haven’t invested much money in developing weed control technologies. Tesso inherited an initiative by predecessors to develop herbicide-resistant parental lines and hybrids. World Food Prize winner Gebisa Ejeta has revolutionized this field in recent decades with his work on drought- and striga-resistant sorghum. Tesso hopes to contribute further to this body of research at Purdue, and to work closely with farmers to promote the adoption of resistant strains.

Jeffrey J. Volenec, professor and interim head of Purdue’s department of agronomy, says Tesso’s sorghum expertise makes him an enormous asset to the university. “He brings to campus a wealth of experience and outstanding scholarship in plant breeding and genetics that leverages our existing strengths and enhances our capacity to eliminate hunger world-wide,” Volenec says. “His research on sorghum improvement is timely as altered rainfall patterns and warmer temperatures associated with climate change are expected to make production of current cropping systems more challenging in many parts of the world by 2050.”

The talent-based Moveable Dream Hires program is piloted by the Deans and Provost to attract high-performing, top-caliber faculty to Purdue even when the topic-based openings in a given year do not match the moveable talent. It complements typical topic-based faculty searches across the University and enables the recruitment of faculty who may not be actively on the job market. These recruits are tenure-track or tenured faculty.

Tesso is excited for the kind of inter-departmental collaboration Purdue is known for. He hopes to work more on developing sorghum strains that can take nutrients from nutrient-poor soil without much fertilizer, which is often prohibitively expensive to small farmers in the developing world. This will require collaboration with various disciplines, including soil science, agronomy and others.

Tesso is also looking forward to working with Purdue’s deep bench of sorghum resources.

“The other thing that really attracted me is the kind of genetic materials and resources that have been developed over the past 50 or 60 years at Purdue,” he says. “The nutritional quality materials, for one, and Dr. Ejeta developed really, really useful resources for drought-tolerance and striga-resistance as well as materials for resistance to foliar and panicle diseases.”

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