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African Orphan Crops Consortium announces 100 crops for sequencing

By Pat Bailey on January 17, 2014 in Food & Agriculture

The African Orphan Crops Consortium, which includes the University of California, Davis, Mars Inc. and other global partners, today released the names of the 100 African crop species whose genomes it plans to sequence, assemble and annotate to improve the nutrition of African farm families, especially their children.

The list of the 100 species, developed by African scientists and their colleagues elsewhere, is being released so that researchers around the world can contact the consortium with suggestions for research needs regarding the selected species. The crop list, which includes African eggplant, amaranth and spider plant, is available at the consortium’s website.

With generous in-kind contributions by its partners, the consortium will sequence a reference genome and 100 lines for each of the crops listed.

The first orphan crop to be studied will be baobab, which can be used as a dried fruit powder for consumer products. Baobab is called "the wonder tree" in Africa because its fruit has antiviral properties and other health benefits, ten times the antioxidant level of oranges, twice the amount of calcium as spinach, three times the vitamin C of oranges and four times more potassium than bananas. 

The consortium’s goal is to use the latest scientific equipment and techniques to guide the development of more robust produce with higher nutritional content. "Orphan crops" are African food crops and tree species that have been neglected by researchers and industry because they are not economically important on the global market. Mars Inc. previously led a similar collaboration that sequenced, assembled and annotated the cacao (cocoa) genome and made these data publically available on the Internet to all researchers in 2010.

In December 2013 the consortium opened the African Plant Breeding Academy in Nairobi, Kenya, to help reduce hunger and malnutrition among the 600 million Africans who live in rural areas, and to boost Africa’s food supply.  

The academy will train 250 plant breeders and technicians in genomics and marker-assisted selection for crop improvement over a five-year period.  The resulting improved planting materials will then be offered to smallholder farmers throughout Africa. 

The academy provides scientists and technicians with a dedicated place to sequence, assemble and annotate the genomes to help develop food crops with higher nutritional value and which can better withstand climate changes, pests and disease.  The data derived will be made publically available with the endorsement of the African Union through a process managed by the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture. 

The African Orphan Crops Consortium includes the African Union - New Partnership for Africa’s Development (co-chair); Mars, Incorporated (co-chair); World Agroforestry Centre (host of the Academy); BGI (doing the initial sequencing); Life Technologies Corporation (donor of sequencing equipment); World Wildlife Fund (co-chair); University of California, Davis (developed the Academy); iPlant Collaborative (managing the data produced) and Biosciences eastern and central Africa - International Livestock Research Institute (which works closely with the World Agroforestry Centre).

The consortium invites communities focusing on the development of orphan crops to collaborate with the consortium on improving the productivity and nutrition of these crops.

More information on such collaborative opportunities is available from Howard Shapiro, chief agricultural officer at Mars Inc. and a senior fellow in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, at howard.shapiro@effem.com and Allen Van Deynze, director of research at UC Davis' Seed Biotechnology Center, at avandeynze@ucdavis.edu.

Related information is also available at the Mars Inc. website at mars.com or at the UC Davis Plant Breeding Academy’s web site at pba.ucdavis.edu.

Media contact(s)

Pat Bailey, Research news (emphasis: agricultural and nutritional sciences, and veterinary medicine), 530-219-9640, pjbailey@ucdavis.edu

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