Gene Sequencing used to Fight Plant Diseases in Africa

Cassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD) is a damaging disease of cassava plants that has recently reemerged in the East African Region. The disease, which is spread by the whitefly, is considered the most significant threat to food security along the coast of East Africa. Recent CBSD outbreaks create $100 million in damages yearly and have caused severe food shortages in countries like Tanzania and Malawi. In response to these outbreaks, the Cassava Diagnostics Project is studying the disease, educating farmers and analyzing the DNA of the plant in hopes of developing resistant strains of cassava to combat plant diseases in East Africa.

The Cassava Diagnostics Project currently operates in seven African Countries, studying the genetic makeup of the plant and testing different strains from different areas to see which are most resistant. In October 2016, the CDP launched a new diagnostics laboratory in Kenya that has quickly become one of the leading centers for testing both Cassava Mosaic Virus and Cassava Brown Streak Virus. This diagnostics lab is just one of the many locations across East Africa bringing students, scientists and farmers together to solve food shortages caused by CBSD and other viruses.

As part of the effort to develop resistant strains of the plant, gene sequencing is a crucial step in speeding up the process and recreating resistant plants, to avoid the future catastrophe of a major outbreak. By analyzing the molecular makeup of favorable strains, virologists in African countries have successfully cultivated several varieties of cassava that are now showing significant resistance. Thanks to these developments made possible by gene sequencing, the disease may now be more properly controlled before spreading to Nigeria, the world’s leading cassava producer.

New cassava strains have already saved thousands from a food crisis in Kenya. As the disease-resistant and nutritionally enhanced version of the plant continues to be introduced thanks to gene sequencing, food shortages are expected to drop and standards of living should continue to rise. While the future looks promising, progress remains slow in some areas as planting materials may not be available to farmers for at least three years in Kenya.

Not only is the CDP having a positive impact in terms of its crop innovations, but the infrastructure it has put in place may continue to benefit these African countries even long after Cassava Brown Streak Disease is gone. The Project’s established laboratories have inspired dozens of PhD and Masters students to stay in East Africa to study with the CDP rather than go abroad for education. This next generation of scientists will continue to fight plant diseases in East Africa and may prove vital in solving the next food or health crisis.

– Nicholas Dugan

Photo: Google

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