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NC State Scientists Collect $12.4M Gates Grant to Improve Sweet Potato

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Scientists at North Carolina State University will use a $12.4 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop genomic, genetic, and bioinformatics tools to improve sweet potato crops.

NCSU said today the researchers want to improve the sweet potato's ability to resist diseases and insects, and to better tolerate heat and drought.

The Gates Foundation is particularly interested in the sweet potato because it is an important source of nutrition and food security, as well as a cash crop that can provide incomes for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. More than 13.5 million metric tons are already produced in the region each year, mainly by poor women farmers working on small plots.

However, the plant has a complex genome, NCSU said, and a lack of knowledge and modern breeding tools needed to work with the crop at the genomic level has limited efforts to boost its production.

NCSU Professor Craig Yencho, who is directing the project, said sweet potatoes are desirable in sub-Saharan Africa because they are hardy crops that can be planted in low-fertility soils and drought-prone regions and have high nutritional value.

"Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, which are an excellent source of vitamin A, rank first in nutritional quality among root and tuber crops grown in sub-Saharan Africa, providing vitamins for millions of people," Yencho said in a statement.

In addition to developing sweet potato tools, Yencho said, another goal for the project is to build a network of young researchers and breeders who will be able to use new genomic breeding tools and techniques.

"We will work very closely with the sweet potato breeding community to identify young breeders for advanced training to build long-term capacity in use of genomic breeding. During the project term, we will make efforts in training to ensure that new researchers and partners are fully capable of employing newly developed tools," Yencho said.

Other partners working with NCSU on the project include the International Potato Center; Michigan State University; the Boyce Thompson Institute at Cornell University; the University of Queensland; the National Crops Resources Research Institute in Uganda; and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Ghana.