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Consortium Aims to Sequence Local Trees and Crops to Improve Nutrition in Africa

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An initiative led by Howard-Yana Shapiro from the confectioner Mars aims to improve nutrition in Africa by sequencing a number of local crops and trees that have been overlooked by other sequencing and breeding programs.

According to the World Health Organization, the number of children in Africa who are underweight increased from 24 million in 1990 to 30 million in 2010, and many of those children are too short for their ages. At the Plant and Animal Genome conference held in San Diego in January, Shapiro added that a third of African children suffer from stunting as they do not get sufficient nutrients from local crops. "We are not emphasizing nutrition in breeding sufficiently," said Shapiro, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of California, Davis.

The $40 million African Orphan Crop Consortium — which consists of Mars, Life Technologies, and UC Davis' African Plant Breeding Academy, among other organizations — plans to sequence two dozen orphan crops from a number of sub-Saharan African countries. The program was announced in the fall at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York.
The African Plant Breeding Academy is to be established in Ghana this year, and UC Davis researchers are to train African researchers there on the latest tools and technologies. Life Technologies is providing tools to the academy. Shapiro also noted that the consortium is backed by the African Union.

Just which 24 species are to be sequenced by the consortium is undecided. That decision is being made in cooperation with government, non-governmental organizations, public and private corporations, as well as scientists. Currently, there is a list of 96 crops and trees that is being whittled down. Shapiro expects the decision of which crops are to be studied to be made by this spring, with DNA collections beginning in June. The crops will then be sequenced by BGI in Hong Kong. The sequences, he added, should be ready by 2014 or 2015.

With the genome sequences of these traditional crops or trees in hand, researchers and breeders can begin to improve their productivity and nutritional value. "We simply have to improve nutrition," Shapiro said.

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