Mapping ‘Orphan Crop’ Genomes Could Save Lives In Africa

Mapping ‘Orphan Crop’ Genomes Could Save Lives In Africa

Howard-Yana Shapiro, a scientist with candy maker Mars, plans to map out genome sequences for a host of African crops and give them to African farmers as a gift to combat malnutrition.

Crops such as yam, finger millet, tef, groundnut, cassava and sweet potato are staples for up to 250 million smallholder African farmers who depend on them for food  and income, according to a report in The Guardian. However, they are considered of little economic interest to large seed and chemical companies such as Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta, which concentrate on global crops such as corn, rice and soy, the report says.

There is huge potential to develop more resilient and higher-yielding varieties of most orphan crops by combining traditional plant breeding methods with new biotech tools such as genetic marking, the report says. This does not involve altering or inserting genes that happens with controversial genetic modification.

Shapiro, the U.S. agricultural director of Mars, led a partnership that sequenced and published the genome of the cacao tree from which chocolate is made. The genes that determine resistance to fungal infections and yield were located and a new generation of cacao trees is being grown which should eventually quadruple production, the report says.

“We haven’t changed a single gene. It’s inheritability. It’s all done with grafting,” Shapiro said in the report.

He plans to work with American and Chinese scientists to sequence and make publicly available the genetic makeup of crops.

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