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Seeing Through a Different Lens

How the Understanding of Needs Varies With Perspective

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Tezera Wolabu Watira, Ph.D., is a researcher who joined the transformation and gene editing laboratory in 2016 under the direction of Zengyu Wang, Ph.D., director of core research and transformation.

Tezera Wolabu Watira, Ph.D.Tezera Wolabu Watira, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow at the Noble Research Institute, where he works on improving alfalfa. Tezera develops genetic technology that can benefit farmers all over the world, though his ultimate goal is to return to Ethiopia to make a difference using the knowledge he has gained.

Tezera comes from Ethiopia, a landlocked country located in the Horn of Africa, the east part of the continent. Ethiopia is the second-most-populous country in Africa with almost 100 million people and a land area about twice the size of Texas (Texas population: 28.5 million). The nation is beautiful, rich with history and culture, yet it is experiencing difficult complexities often faced by developing nations.

Ethiopia has fascinated me for a long time. Despite the challenges it has experienced in recent years, I am told pictures cannot do justice to the beauty and intrigue of this exotic land.

Farm Life in Ethiopia

When I told Tezera I wanted to learn about life in Ethiopia and how it has influenced his work, he painted a very different picture of daily life and agriculture than what is experienced in the United States.

Tezera was born in 1966 in the central highlands of Ethiopia about 75 kilometers (about 47 miles) from the capital city of Addis Ababa. His family, and everyone in their community, were subsistence farmers. Tezera's family made their life by growing crops and raising livestock on about 5 hectares (about 12 acres) of land. When he was a child, the family owned four oxen, three cows and some calves, eight to 10 goats, a few sheep, two donkeys and one mule.

Ethiopian cattle
Cattle in Ethiopia look different from those we see here in Oklahoma and Texas. Photo courtesy of Tezera Watira.

During the rainy season (June to September), the family plowed the land using oxen and planted crops (teff, wheat, barley, maize, sorghum, pea, faba bean, chickpea and lentil). The day began early to feed the oxen and prepare them for a day of plowing.

Plowing fields
Oxen are used to plow fields in Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Tezera Wolabu Watira.

At 8 a.m., they would begin plowing and continue until 4 p.m. After an hour of rest, they would plant horticultural crops (including cabbage, peppers, onion and garlic) until sunset. Then the oxen were fed until about 10 p.m. before it was time to sleep.

The harvest season also required early mornings and full days of mowing crops using a handheld sickle then threshing the grain with the help of the oxen and donkeys. The grain was cleaned, and what was left was used for the animals' hay.

Basic, cultural farming practices, including those for processing hay, are used in Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Tezera Wolabu Watira.

There were no tractors or combine harvesters. Plowing implements were made from traditional materials, woods and metals, and constructed using handmade tools. During Tezera's childhood, there was no supply of fertilizer or improved seed. Later, during his teenage years, farmers in the region started applying fertilizer to their crops, and they saw increased yields per unit area.

A Student of Science

Ethiopian children who are fortunate enough to get to go to school often have to walk long distances to get there. For his education, Tezera walked two hours each way until eighth grade when he went away to a boarding school in the city.

Ethiopian boys on their way to school
Ethiopian girls on their way to school

Ethiopian boys and girls on their way to school. Photos courtesy of Tezera Watira.

Tezera's interest in science started because he dreamed of finding a solution to the eye troubles his mother experienced.

Cooking smoke can lead to cataracts and the spread of other eye diseasesIn many developing countries, exposure to cooking smoke can lead to cataracts and the spread of other eye diseases. Fasika, pictured here, is one of many Ethiopian women who cook over fire. This photo was taken by my aunt and uncle, Vicki and Andre Orluc, who provide medical and small business assistance to people in Ethiopia.

Tezera gained knowledge about science in high school, and he learned about how plant science could help improve agricultural production. Tezera knew from his own experiences growing up that improving agricultural production would improve life for people like those in his community.

He went on to college where he gained a bachelor's degree in plant science and a master's degree in breeding and agronomy from Haramaya University, one of the oldest agricultural colleges in Ethiopia. Haramaya University has strong historical ties and a continuing close connection to Oklahoma State University (OSU).

Then, he joined the Agricultural Research Institute in Ethiopia and served as a researcher in breeding-genetics and agronomy. He also worked in an extension role in Ethiopia demonstrating the advantages of improved technologies employing crop and farm management strategies.

Tezera moved to the United States when he joined OSU's Plant and Soil Sciences Department (OSU-PaSS) as a Ph.D. student in August 2010. He defended his dissertation and earned his Ph.D. in plant molecular-genetics in the fall of 2015, and he was named outstanding graduate of the year. His graduate research projects were focused on identifying novel functions of major genes in dicot leaf development and monocot floral transition for biomass yield improvement. In other words, Tezera was interested in understanding how certain genes control how plants grow the parts we – and/or animals – can eat and use. This knowledge will assist breeders in developing lines of plants that produce higher yields.

Science Serving Agriculture (and the World)

Tezera's experiences and perspective are foundational to his work at the Noble Research Institute, where he works on genome editing for crop improvement.

About 85 percent of Ethiopia depends upon farming to meet their needs, and they are often subject to harsh droughts or flood conditions. Strategies to help these farmers need to be tailored to fit the highland topography, which is not easily accessible by tractors or combines, and areas where access to fuel is limited. One useful strategy is Tezera's research area: gene editing. By using our understanding of plant genetics, we can improve a plant's natural production abilities.

This strategy is useful for geographies across the world – including here in the U.S.

Tezera's work at the Noble Research Institute is focused on improving alfalfa, an important agricultural crop commonly used in the U.S. and around the world as food for dairy cattle and other animals. By studying how alfalfa works on the genetic level and how technologies, like gene editing, can improve alfalfa, we can help meet the needs of farmers throughout the world. For example, we could breed lines of alfalfa that are more tolerant to drought, have an extended growing season, or more efficiently use fertilizers.

DNA isolation
Tezera in the lab

To prepare tissue for DNA isolation for genotyping, Tezera cuts leaf samples from alfalfa plantlets in tissue culture jars using sterilized forceps and scissors in a laminar flow hood. The laminar flow hood is an essential part of working with clean cultures to avoid contamination by blowing a constant flow of filtered, clean air outwards to prevent germs and particles from falling into the cultures. Genotyping identifies samples by genetic code (genotype) rather than by phenotype (observable characteristics like appearance, growth traits or chemical composition). These genome-edited alfalfa plantlets will be studied to determine the effects of changing a small portion of the genetic code of this important crop plant.

Tezera shared this valuable insight: Gaining knowledge can improve something, but this knowledge must be applied to have an effect.

Pressing needs like the growing demand for food with limited land resources, or the resulting unrest and uncertainty in a nation without access to the advancements of modern agriculture, already impact developing nations. And our world is not gaining any more land mass or finite resources any time soon.

The Noble Research Institute serves agriculture through improving soil and crops, encouraging land stewardship, and innovating agricultural practices to deliver solutions and meet the challenges of our growing world.

Through increasing knowledge and transferring that knowledge to producers through education and new tools, the Noble Research Institute rises to meet the grand challenges facing people across our planet. The global perspectives of our researchers, such as Tezera, adds to our ability and excitement for doing this.

Amy Flanagan
Former Research Associate