African CRISPR Course Wins $2 Million in Funding

branches of moringa
Moringa (Moringa oleifera), a fast-growing tree with edible leaves, shoots and seeds, is among the 101 African crops targeted by the African Orphan Crops Consortium. New breeding methods such as CRISPR could help improve these crops.

The UC Davis African Plant Breeding Academy has been awarded $2 million to train scores of African scientists to advance crop breeding, increase production and improve nutrition for regional crops across the continent.

The grant supports creating and delivering a new course on CRISPR gene editing. UC Davis has recruited scientists from Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Morocco, Nigeria and Sudan to participate in an intensive, five-year program that enhances their knowledge and skills to fast-track development of new sources of vital traits in food crops. Participants began the first of five classes in January and will graduate in October 2023.

A group of men and women in a formal class portrait outdoors on the steps of a building. Most of the people are black. A sign behind them reads "AfPBA CRISPR Course Class 1 23 January - 01 February 2023 ICRAF-ILRI, Nairobi, Kenya"
Participants, instructors and organizers of the African Plant Breeding Academy's first course on using the CRISPR gene editing technique for regionally important crops gathered in January for the course's first two-week session in Nairobi, Kenya. (Courtesy CIFOR-ICRAF)

“This CRISPR course directly complements our African Plant Breeding Academy, which has trained now 153 African plant breeders,” said Allen Van Deynze, of the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences. Van Deynze is an instructor and organizer of the new course and a key member of the international effort supporting it.

Africa’s population is projected to quadruple this century, making food security a pressing need for the continent. While Africa is abundant with crops, African farmers need crop breeding tools and training to be self-sustainable and achieve nutritional security.

The course is training 80 African scientists to develop improved regional crop varieties with the characteristics required for successful crop production and nutrition. The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research announced a $1-million grant for the project May 24, matched by UC Davis, Bayer Crop Sciences and Syngenta Seeds for a total investment of $2 million.

CRISPR allows scientists to edit targeted genes to promote desired traits in crops. It’s an efficient process that is democratizing crop breeding around the world. UC Davis seeks to broaden the acceptance of the technology in Africa and expand its application to the continent’s regional crops, in partnership with the Innovative Genomics Institute at UC BerkeleyCIFOR-World Agroforestry and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture.

“CRISPR course graduates are connected to plant breeders from National Agricultural Research System programs to create an international community of practice in plant breeding that amplifies their impact,” Van Deynze said.

Building a network of scientists skilled in CRISPR editing will help position Africa as a key contributor on the global stage in this frontier of crop development. In turn, U.S. scientists, plant breeders, growers and consumers will benefit from access to improved germplasm, new trait sources and enhanced technologies for a diverse set of crops to broaden American diets.

International effort to build crop resilience in Africa

The course is an initiative of the African Orphan Crops Consortium, of which Van Deynze is the scientific director.  It is offered through the African Plant Breeding Academy, part of the UC Davis Plant Breeding Academy, of which Van Deynze is the co-developer and organizer. The academy is an outgrowth of the UC Davis Seed Biotechnology Center.

The course is led by Director of Capacity Development and Mobilization for the AOCC, Rita Mumm, with key instructors David Savage of IGI and Leena Tripathi of IITA. It features interactive classroom instruction and hands-on laboratory training delivered by world-class experts and practitioners. Participants receive the knowledge and skills needed to successfully promote desired traits – such as disease resistance, stress tolerance, added nutrition and prolonged shelf life – in regionally relevant crops. The course encourages participants to work with a crop aligned to their national and institutional priorities. Furthermore, the course is also a “train the trainer” program, preparing participants to teach others with the goal of developing a community of practice across the continent.

Recruitment outreach aims at representing and benefitting as many African countries as possible and equal gender representation. Graduates of the program will receive up to $15,000 to enhance their current labs with equipment to jumpstart gene editing in their programs. They will also receive postgraduation mentorship for at least one year.

“Africa is rich with local crops that have the potential to provide accessible, affordable nutritional security for millions,” said Jeffrey Rosichan, FFAR scientific program director. “This research helps ensure food security by advancing the nutritional value and other desired traits in local crops, while also bolstering the scientific workforce across Africa. This project is a win-win for local communities across the continent.”

“CRISPR can be a powerful tool for improving regional crops and making them more resilient to diseases and a changing climate. Programs like this ensure that these new approaches can be accessed by plant breeders and farmers where they are needed most,” said Jennifer Doudna, 2020 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, professor at UC Berkeley and founder of IGI.

Other partners include the African Union Development Agency-NEPADUM6P VenturesMorrison and FoersterInternational Livestock Research Institute and Biosciences for Africa.

Media Resources

African scientists embark on pioneering CRISPR course

African Orphan Crops Consortium

Trina Kleist is a writer with the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences. 

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