A machine that will help scientists to select the best genes  – and help improve the “African orphan crops” has been unveiled in Nairobi, a major boost for the breeders.

The gene sequencing machine is the product of Illumina Inc –  an American company that specializes in machines that analyses genetic variation and biological function – which has  donated one of its latest model  HISEq 4000 to African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC) based at World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi.

The machine will be used by plant breeders to identify genes to breed orphan crops in sub-Saharan Africa that are believed to be key to ‘unlocking malnutrition and boosting food security.”

“We are really excited by this venture. The same way scientists have been able to understand human genes and combat diseases is the same way plant breeders will be able to select the best genes and improve these important African crops using the machine just launched”  Genomics Scientist Prasad S. Hendre told Top Farmer.

The machine was launched during the African Plant Breeding Academy (AfPBA) training session. During the training, African plant breeders underwent an intensive six-week course where they learnt how to use DNA information to better crops.

African orphan crops, sometimes referred to as neglected crops, minor crops, lost crops of Africa been used by generations but have never been given any scientific consideration to further develop or breed them.

One of the first orphan crops to be sequenced, assembled and annotated by the AOCC is finger millet. Consumed as a porridge, bread or beverage the crop has been used by thousands of African families for generations for its high nutritional value.

By sharing knowledge of the ‘genome sequences of finger millet and other African crops, scientists and technicians working at the AOCC will help plant breeders to develop more nutritious, productive and robust variety. These will then be released to farmers for cultivation. 101 crops have been earmarked for DNA improvement.

“Happy day, happy day!” said Dr. Howard-Yana Shapiro, the Chief Agricultural Officer at Mars Incorporated. Dr Shapiro, who has been instrumental in initiating and building support for African neglected crops, told  35 African plant breeders attending the Third Academy that “this is a celebration for all of us in this room.”

Dr Shapiro

With another 41 having already graduated from previous training sessions held in 2014 and 2016, The Academy now boasts 72 plant breeders from over 35 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

AOCC says the goal of the lab is to define the genetic diversity at the sequence level of 101 key parental lines for breeders to use for their programs. Eight different species have been fully sequenced, with 21 more at different levels of preparation. Another 19 crops, nominated by AOCC, are being sequenced by other organisations. A total of 44 crops will have been sequenced by the end of 2017.



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