African scientists, working with peers from the University of California and with backing from international funders such as the Clinton Global Initiative, will be focusing on at least two dozen African food crops and tree species in an effort to boost Africa's health and economic vitality. The recently formed African Orphan Crops consortium will be genetically sequencing and breeding some of the continent's most important, but neglected, native crops.
An integral part of the new initiative will be the African Plant Breeding Academy, developed in Ghana by UC Davis researchers to train African scientists to incorporate the latest technologies for breeding these orphaned crops in Africa.
The consortium will sequence the genome — an organism's entire collection of genes — for each species and make that information freely available to scientists around the world. That information will then be applied, using the most advanced breeding techniques and technologies, to develop new varieties of crops that are more nutritious, produce higher yields and are more tolerant of environmental stresses, such as drought.
The consortium has developed a list of 96 species, which will be narrowed to 24 food crops and tree species whose genomes will be sequenced. The selected species will have the potential to play a nutritionally significant role in the African diet and directly or indirectly improve food security in Africa. Some of the better-known species to be considered for sequencing include amaranth, marula, cocyam, Ethiopian mustard, ground nut tree, African potato, acacia, baobab, matoke bananas, African medlars, African eggplant and Cape tomato.
"Virtually every small-farm producer growing food crops for subsistence in Africa is growing a species that the consortium will be striving to improve," said Howard Yana Shapiro, global director for plant science and external research at Mars Inc. and an adjunct plant sciences professor at UC Davis.
He noted that the consortium has already begun to sequence the Faidherbia albida, a type of acacia tree that can be used for improving soil nitrogen content and preventing erosion. The tree also has edible seeds and, unlike most trees, sheds its leaves during the rainy season so that it can be grown among field crops without shading them.
The sequencing of the selected 24 food crops and tree species will be carried out by BGI, the world's largest genome sequencing institute. UC Davis in June announced a partnership with the China-based institute to conduct large-scale genome sequencing and functional genomics programs, focusing initially on the areas of food security; human and animal health and wellness; and biodiversity and environmental health.
"The goal of the African Plant Breeding Academy will be to educate African plant breeders in the application of genomic information to crop improvement, so that they can quickly adopt efficient, advanced breeding approaches," said Allen Van Deynze, director of research for UC Davis' Seed Biotechnology Center. "This will accelerate the rate of genetic improvement to increase yield and nutritional quality of African staple crops."
The scientists and technicians trained through the African Plant Breeding Academy in Ghana will, in turn, educate the next generation of African plant breeders, he said.