Sequencing all life captivates biologists


“To sequence everything in the world—that is the reason we are here.” With those words last week, China’s genome pioneer Huanming Yang publicly kicked off what he hopes will become a massive international collaboration that will dwarf the Human Genome Project of the 1990s and provide a new basis for understanding and conserving the world’s life. Read more

This greater bird of paradise in Indonesia and
the plants around it may have their DNA deciphered.
CREDIT: TIM LAMAN/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

How Happiness is breeding plants for Africa’s future


Happiness Oselebe, geneticist and mother of six, one of 29 senior plant breeders from around Africa attending the African Plant Breeding Academy in July 2016 at ICRAF. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Catharine Watson

Plant breeders are improving food plants and building a more food-secure future for Africa. One has been working at it all her life despite early challenges.
A plant breeder called Happiness spent 17 months trying to study a herbaceous vine prior to breeding.

‘It is found in the thick forest. But when I tried to domesticate it, it never flowered. This indicated that it may be plastic in its floral ontogeny requiring certain environmental signals/stimuli to trigger flowering’, she said.

Undeterred by this, the Nigerian scientist turned her attention to bananas, yams, rice and a myriad of other crops. But Happiness Oselebe has a lingering regret about the vine, called Dioscoreophyllum cumminsii from where  the ‘serendipity berry‘ is harvestedRead more…

Promoting early-maturing, oil-rich shea trees and holding off the charcoal threat


n Abia, Northern Uganda, farmer and grandmother Catherine Ekuka, 63, decants shea oil for cooking. Photo CWatson/ICRAF
n Abia, Northern Uganda, farmer and grandmother Catherine Ekuka, 63, decants shea oil for cooking. Photo CWatson/ICRAF

In Europe and the US, shea butter or oil is a famous skin cream. But shea is even more important as the main cooking oil for the band of 21 African countries that stretches West to East from Senegal to Ethiopia. There the oil is valued and relied upon by an estimated 80 million people.

“It’s the oil that people use for their own nutrition,” says Sam Gwali. “They store the nuts all year round and process the oil at home when it’s needed, and also share it.  A neighbor can borrow from a friend, saying ‘Mine is finished’’

Gwali is talking about oil from Vitellaria paradoxasubspecies nilotica, a tree that has been his intellectual quest for 20 years. He is in Nairobi at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) for a training to which top plant breeders from around the continent have been recruited. His aim is more productive, earlier-maturing trees. (Shea trees typically mature in 15 to 20 years).

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Indigenous African crops meet state of the art plant breeding


Dr Achigan-Dako during a leaf sampling exercise for marker-assisted selection at the African Plant Breeding Academy training in Nairobi. Photo by C Watson/ICRAF
Dr Achigan-Dako during a leaf sampling exercise for marker-assisted selection at the African Plant Breeding Academy training in Nairobi. Photo by C Watson/ICRAF

Few plant breeders in the world work on indigenous African crops. In fact, the lack of research on these nutritious and locally valued plants has been almost total. But Dr Enoch Achigan-Dako, a researcher from Benin, is working on four at the same time. He is equally passionate about each and, between training sessions at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), expounds on them one by one.

Amaranthus can never disappear from our farms,” says the senior lecturer at the University of Abomey- Calavi. “Within one month, you have your plant. But I want to cross Amaranthus cruentus with A. dubius for bigger leaves and taller plants. I also want to delay the flowering time, because once the plant flowers, vegetable sellers think it is old. They want tender leaves.”…Read more