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Improvements for Cassava

The Portuguese imported cassava to Africa from South America, and the starchy plant has become a staple food for many Africans, the Economist reports.

But the cassava plants that have thrived in Africa only represent a small portion of its genetic diversity, limiting farmers' abilities to increase yields and select for other traits. One way to increase diversity would be to introduce additional plants from South America, but those plants are susceptible to cassava mosaic disease, while the established African plants are not, the Economist adds.

Instead, the NextGen Cassava project, led by Chiedozie Egesi from the National Root Crops Research Institute in Nigeria, are scouring the SNPs found in more than 6,000 cassava specimens collected from different parts of Africa for ones that mark certain desirable phenotypes. So far, Egesi and his colleagues have uncovered a hundred specimens with promising features and have crossed them to yield some 10,000 hybrids, the Economist reports. They then checked the SNP patterns against the desired traits, with an eye to resistance to cassava mosaic disease, and started the cycle over again — they are now on the third cycle, and plan to do a fourth.

"The prize for all this effort would be to put cassava on a par with the improved crops of the rich world," the Economist says. "It might even become, like them, more of an industrial cash crop than something just grown for the pot, as is often the case now."