Scientists in Nairobi have started to analyse the genetic makeup of 100 African crops in a mammoth project that will last five years. The 250 scientists will work in different shifts at the World Agroforestry Centre (Icraf) in Gigiri.
They have now released the names of the plants they will study in a process followed closely by students, scientists and policy makers across the world. The scientists will sequence, assemble and annotate the genomes of these crops over the five years.
A genome is an organism's complete hereditary information, needed to build and maintain that organism. The important traits from these crops can be inserted into vegetables, fruits and other agricultural products to make them more robust and nutritious. The improved planting material will then be distributed freely to millions of small-scale farmers across the continent.
"The list of the 100 species is being released so that researchers around the world can contact the consortium with suggestions for research needs regarding the selected species," Icraf said in a statement. The project is run by the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC) as an academy that will train the African scientists involved.
The first batch of scientists has already been admitted and the next 25 to 30 will be enrolled next year. 'Orphan crops' are the continents food crops and tree species that have been neglected by researchers and industry because they are not economically important on the global market.
The project, dubbed African Crop Breeding Academy, said the first crop to be studied will be the baobab, a rarely grown African tree but that is highly nutritious. Researchers said they will begin their work with Baobab because of its high nutritional value.
Its fruit has powerful antiviral properties, 10 times the antioxidant level of oranges, twice the amount of calcium as milk, three times the vitamin C of oranges and four times more potassium than bananas. The fruit has a citric taste similar to Orange or Lemon.
"This is a huge leap forward for the African Orphan Crops Consortium and the start of a very different future for Africa's orphan crops," said Howard-Yana Shapiro, chief agricultural officer for America's giant snacks manufacturer Mars Incorporated and a senior fellow in the University of California (UC) Davis Department of Plant Sciences.
Mars and UC Davis are part of the consortium managing the academy. Others are the African Union - New Partnership for Africa's Development (AU-NEPAD), Icraf, WWF, BGI, Life Technologies Corporation, iPlant Collaborative and Biosciences eastern and central Africa - International Livestock Research Institute (BecA - ILRI Hub).
"The addition of so many tree species in the list, which can help rural and urban people achieve their full cognitive and physical potential, is ground breaking," said Prof Tony Simons, director general of the World Agroforestry Centre. Sequencing of Baobab will allow researchers to read and decipher the genetic information found in the plant.
Almost any biological sample containing a full copy of the DNA-- like a piece of the plant's leaf--can can be used for for full genome sequencing. It's an easy process in which the DNA is fed into a machine, which then spits out the thousands different parts of the DNA, all jumbled together like the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle.
Researchers will then try to assemble these parts back into the original format without breaks or errors. This is a laborious process that is hardly ever successful. In annotation, scientists try to attach biological information to these parts, so that they can make sense of the whole thing.
Once scientists break down the genetic makeup of the plant, any crop breeder can use technology to transfer the desired traits from one crop to another. Cabinet Secretary for Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries Felix Koskei however cautions scientists because this is actually genetic modification.
"As we embark on improving our indigenous orphan crops, we must ensure we adhere to the country's regulatory processes so that new or improved plant varieties entering the market are both safe and meet the farmers' needs," he says.
Other crops that will be sequenced include African eggplant, amaranth, spider plant, potato, cocoyam, ethiopian mustard, cassava, cacao, millet, sorgum and legumes. Ole MoiYoi, chair of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kemri) board, praised the academy as the largest of its kind in Africa. "We have to get serious about getting people out of episodes of starvation," he said.
The initiative is considered grand in scientific circles because of its magnitude. Since 2000 only 56 plants have had their full complement of hereditary information sequenced anywhere in the world. The world's largest genetic-research centre, China's BGI (Beijing Genomics Institute), is leading the sequencing by availing its expertise to the scientists and researchers at Gigiri.
"BGI is dedicated to using genomics technology for the benefit of human beings," said Prof Jian Wang, president of BGI. The institute deputy director Xun Xu says anything that makes it to the dinner table should be sequenced. "All the delicious vegetables at the Chinese table have been sequenced," said Xu.
BGI produces at least a quarter of the world's genomic data, much more than any other scientific institution produces. Nepad CEO Ibrahim Mayaki said the agency would ensure African ownership of the project at both political and technical level. He said the project would boost nutrition and food productivity in the continent.
"The orphan crops suffer low yield in terms of both quality and quantity due to lack of genetic improvement," he said. The orphan crops consortium was officially launched at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) annual meeting in 2011. During the 2013 Clinton Global Initiative meeting, the consortium had raised approximately Sh3.4 billion ($40 million) in in-kind donations to support the work.