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Gates Foundation Awards $1.3M for Cassava Research after Int'l Team Sequences Draft Genome

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – An international research team announced today that they have sequenced a first draft version of the cassava genome.

On the heels of this achievement, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Agricultural Development initiative has reportedly awarded a $1.3 million grant to University of Arizona researchers to support the development of additional genetic resources for cassava.

The award is intended to support the creation of a cassava genome variation database — a resource that's expected to reveal genetic markers for key cassava traits, improve breeding efforts, and lead to the development of disease-resistant cassava strains.

The team is particularly interested in coming up with cassava plants that are resistant to the cassava brown streak disease or CBSD-causing virus, which is currently threatening food security in parts of East Africa.

"With the first cassava genome in hand, we can cheaply and quickly sequence other varieties that will give us thousands of little signposts — mile markers if you like — that will help us identify key genes for increasing the plant's resistance to the virus," University of Arizona plant researcher Steve Rounsley, who is leading the effort, said in a statement.

Researchers from the Institute for Genome Sciences, the University of Maryland, the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute, Roche 454 Life Sciences, and investigators in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania will also collaborate on the development and application of the new genetic resource.

JGI's Community Sequencing Program selected the cassava genome as a pilot project in 2006. Sequencing began in earnest early this year, when JGI and Roche 454 Life Sciences committed resources to the project.

Using the Roche 454 platform, researchers generated more than 60 million reads, which they subsequently assembled into a draft genome representing roughly 95 percent of cassava genes. Most of the sequencing was reportedly completed within about eight weeks. The annotated cassava genome is available through JGI's Phytozome web site.

"The contributions of 454 Life Sciences and DOE JGI in making the cassava genome a reality have opened a new chapter in cassava research worldwide," Katherine Kahn, program officer with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Agricultural Development initiative, said in a statement. "We're excited about the opportunity for cassava breeders to access new tools for improving a staple African crop."

Cassava, Manihot esculenta, is a root plant that is grown as a subsistence crop in parts of Africa and Asia. The plant is also used for starch production and has been proposed as a possible biofuel stock. Despite being the main food source for millions of people, cassava has poor nutritional content and is susceptible to CBSD and other diseases. Even so, improving the crop through traditional approaches has proved difficult and time-consuming.