By Patricia Waldron
Yam farmers in Africa may soon benefit from a large collection of genetic information contributed by local breeders and researchers but compiled half a world away. Associate Professor Lukas Mueller will soon add Yambase to the list of genomic databases he leads.
Yams play an important role, both culturally and nutritionally, in the lives of people living in West and Central Africa. Each year, the average person eats about 134 pounds of this starchy tuber, which provides fiber, vitamin C and essential minerals. But yam production has dropped in some areas due to higher labor costs, diminishing soil fertility and attacks from beetles, blights and viruses. Local breeders and researchers plan to work together to create pest-resistant yams with higher yields using modern genetic techniques.
“Despite its role as a key staple in West Africa and other tropical regions of the world, yam has been one of the most under-researched crops with very few genomic resources available,” said Robert Asiedu, head of crop improvement at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), based in Ibadan, Nigeria, and a principal investigator on the project.
Creating new yam varieties is a challenging and time-consuming endeavor. Using conventional techniques, a breeder may spend six to 10 years working on a new type. The plant produces few offshoots and requires relatively large fields for experiments.
The Yambase database will allow users to access the yam genome browser hosted by the Iwate Biotechnology Research Center in Japan and will house information about desirable yam characteristics and tools for breeders. Mueller already leads the SOL Genomics network, a collaborative website that compiles genome data from Solanaceae species, including tomato, potato and pepper, as well as Cassavabase, a database composed of cassava breeding information.
“It is truly a ‘one-stop-shop’ for the global yam breeding community,” said Ismail Rabbi, a geneticist at IITA and member of the new yam project. “We adopted an ‘open data’ policy and therefore people can access the data from anywhere and help in the improvement of the crop.”
Mueller received funding from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, as part of its project Africa Yam: Enhancing yam breeding for increased productivity and improved quality in West Africa. The IITA receives funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
In addition to Yambase, Mueller will also create a banana database, called Musabase, with a similar goal to improve banana breeding. Musabase has funding from the IITA’s Improvement of Banana for Smallholder Farmers in the Great Lakes Region of Africa project.
“These are hugely important crops for many food insecure farmers in Africa and there are new threats from pests and diseases which we need to be ready for,” said Graham Thiele, director of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas, who collaborates with Mueller on Cassavabase. “RTB is also keen to build a community of scientists around shared platforms and tools, across all our crops. We really appreciate Dr. Mueller’s openness to collaboration and have a shared interest in rolling out a suite of tools similar to Cassavabase, which can bring the RTB community closer together and accelerate scientific progress.”
Video produced by IITA
Originally posted on the Boyce Thompson Institute website.