Category Archives: Ogechi Nweke

Interested in Biotechnology and Life Sciences in general.

Genome Editing – An Opportunity for Crop Improvement in Africa

Africa must advance rapidly to meet growing food demands and raise incomes while protecting the environment for future generations. Crop improvement through genome editing will provide this opportunity.

Genome editing of crops represents the latest scientific progress with potential aimed at fighting the persistent food crisis situations in developing societies. Genome editing is simply inserting, deleting or replacing DNA at a specific site in the genome of a cell or organism and this can be achieved in the laboratory using engineered nucleases  known as Molecular Scissors.

A strand of DNA is cut at a specific point and naturally existing cellular repair mechanisms then fix the broken DNA strands and the way they are repaired affects gene function. The families of engineered nucleases used are Zinc Finger Nucleases (ZFNs), Meganucleases, Transcription Activator-Like Effector-based Nucleases (TALEN), and the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR).

The emergence of CRISPR Associated System (CRISPR-Cas9) has revolutionized the field of genome editing and is now the most commonly used genome editing tool. Genome editing with CRISPR-Cas9 has been demonstrated in some crops like rice, lettuce, maize, potato, soybean and some other leguminous crops. In China, CRISPR has been used to produce a variety of wheat resistant to powdery mildew disease and presently in Japan; field trials for high yield gene edited rice are ongoing.

Genome editing/CRISPR-Cas9 system has potential for crop improvement in Africa because this technology is easier, faster and cheaper than genetic engineering or conventional breeding. It also offers new opportunities for developing improved crop varieties with clear-cut addition of valuable traits and removal of undesirable traits. Crops of reliable high yields, resistance to diseases, pests, and stress factors can now be readily available.

Read: Is Genetically Engineered Food Good For You

Genome editing can be used for improvement of some of our staple crops in Africa like cassava, cowpea, yam, pearl millet, sweet potato, sorghum etc. Cassava brown streak virus affects cassava production greatly and CRISPR could offer a solution.

CRISPR-Cas9 system can be applied in the improvement of cowpea for resistance to abiotic stress. Abiotic stresses affecting cowpea production include drought, heat, and low soil fertility. Although the crop is known to be drought tolerant, its yield can be reduced significantly when exposed to seedling, mid-season or terminal drought. Genome editing can be used to improve the nutritional quality of these staple crops and also applied to local crop varieties that smallholder farmers in Africa prefer, to improve their livelihood.

Despite the debates on the acceptance of Genetically Modified Crops; there is hope for better policies and regulations concerning genome/CRISPR edited crops as it possible to edit the genome of crops without adding any foreign DNA.  Genome editing holds great promise for crop improvement in Africa and can be explored to tackle food insecurity and increase agricultural productivity. Africa must rise to its responsibility and take advantage of this opportunity in the global fight for zero hunger.

Read: Biotechnology – Solving Nigeria’s Food Insecurity Challenges

 

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Biotechnology – Solving Nigeria’s Food Insecurity Challenges

Nigeria is still a developing country despite being blessed with abundant natural resources including a good climate which supports the growth of vegetation and rearing of animals.

Nigerian agriculture is still characterized by low yield per hectare, low production technology, outdated production techniques, low level of innovation adoption etc.

Nigeria has also witnessed progressive increase in importation of food in order to meet shortfalls in domestic food supply. As Nigeria continues to battle economic recession, which has hit the nation hard, the spirit of most citizens has dampened and they have lost hope in the government. Food security is the one thing Nigeria needs most now.

Food insecurity is still a major challenge in Nigeria. Both rural and urban poor people suffer from food insecurity and poor nutrition, caused in large measure by poverty and lack of nutritional balance in the diet they can afford. Food insecurity and malnutrition result in serious public health problems and loss of human potential.

To combat these challenges, food production and purchasing power both need to increase in Nigeria. Since land and water are the most limiting resources for food production, there is a need to increase yields on the available land and biotechnology offers solution to this.

Biotechnology tools are presently used to tackle the problems of global food insecurity and agricultural biotechnology offers opportunities in developing countries like Nigeria.

Many potential biotechnologies are available, these include: Traditional Plant Breeding, Tissue culture and micro propagation, Molecular breeding or Marker assisted selection, Genetically Modified crops, and recently Genome-editing for crops.

Read: Genome Editing – An Opportunity for Crop Improvement in Africa

These techniques can help address the problems of food insecurity by increasing per seed yield of some of our crops, multiplying the planting materials for farmers, increasing the area of land under cultivation, enhancing nutritional qualities of some of our crops and reducing dependence on agrochemicals.

Genetically Modified crops have been developed and rapidly disseminated since the early 1990s. GM crops for virus resistance, insect/pest resistance and delayed ripening are good examples of crop improvement strategies that are beneficial.

Read: Is Genetically Engineered Food Good For You

Insect–resistant plant varieties using the ᵟendotoxin of Bacillus thuringensis have been produced for several plant species like tomato, tobacco, potato, cotton, maize sugarcane and rice, of these, maize, cotton is already commercialized.

This technology can be adapted to our local crops to help increase productivity. This is important because adapting biotechnology to local or indigenous crops often have deep social or religious meaning to culture and simply replacing local crops with another crop to increase productivity may potentially destroy local cultural traditions.

Local farmers in Nigeria are more likely to embrace a known crop with genetic modification than a foreign crop. Also, our local varieties of wheat can also be genetically modified or improved to reduce wheat importation and save foreign exchange.

Nigeria is presently the highest importer of wheat and rice on the African continent. Tissue culture and micro-propagation can also be used to assist farmers obtain quality, disease free and readily available planting materials for crops like banana, plantain, pineapple, citrus, yam, cassava. Small scale farmers in rural communities can benefit from this.

In addition, farmers and researchers/scientists in agricultural biotechnology can collaborate, so that research results from the laboratories can reach farmers. Research can also be targeted and tied to meet the specific needs of rural farmers; this will help increase food /agricultural productivity and economic empowerment.

Read: Bio-Hacking: We Can Now Have Milk Without Cows and Eggs Without Chickens

In spite of the tremendous advances in biotechnology, public fear persists, especially the controversies on the acceptance of GM crops. These issues may prevent these innovations from having the impact they promise.

Stakeholders of biotechnology in Nigeria must substantially increase its efforts to educate and engage the public to ensure that biotechnology truly lives up to its potential to solve our food insecurity challenges. Biotechnology for food security should be our priority.

The World’s First Malaria Vaccine to Be Rolled Out in Ghana, Kenya & Malawi in 2018

Malaria is one of the world’s most deadly diseases even though it is highly preventable and treatable. Malaria causes approximately 881,000 deaths every year, with nine out of ten deaths occurring in sub-Saharan Africa.

Effective control and treatment of malaria has been very challenging and efforts have been made to reduce the burden of malaria in an integrated approach that combines preventative measures, such as long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets (LLINs) and indoor residual spraying (IRS), with improved access to effective anti-malarial drugs.

However, malaria is a disease that stems from and causes poverty, and many at-risk populations live in extremely destitute, remote areas. Poor, rural families are the least likely to have access to these preventative measures that are fundamental to malaria control, and may live kilometres from the nearest healthcare facility. They are also less able to afford treatment once infection has occurred.

In addition to the human cost of malaria, the economic burden of the disease is vast. It is estimated that malaria costs African countries more than US$12 billion every year in direct losses, even though the disease could be controlled for a fraction of that sum. For Nigeria alone the direct loss to the economy is estimated at GBP530 million annually.

Up to 40% of African health budgets are spent on malaria each year, and on average, a malaria-stricken family loses a quarter of its income through loss of earnings and the cost of treating and preventing the disease. Malaria causes an average loss of 1.3% of economic growth per year in Africa.

There is a ray of hope in Africa as the world first malaria vaccine is to be rolled out in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi in 2018. This injectable vaccine known as “RTS,S or Mosquirix” was developed by British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and will be offered for babies and children in high risk areas as part of real life trials as reported by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In clinical trials it is proved only partially effective, and it needs to be given in a four-dose schedule, but it is the first-regulator-approved vaccine against the mosquito- borne disease. The WHO, who is in process of assessing whether to add the shot to the core package of WHO-recommended measures for malaria prevention, has said it firsts wants to see the results of on-the ground testing in a pilot programme.

“Information gathered in the pilot will help us make decisions on the wider use of this vaccine,” Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s African regional director said in a statement as the three pilot countries were announced.

“Combined with existing malaria interventions, such a vaccine would have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives in Africa.”

Global efforts in the last 15 years cut the malaria toll by 62 percent between 2000 and 2015. The WHO pilot programme will assess whether the Mosquirix’s protective effect in children aged 5 to 17 months can be replicated in real life. It will also assess the feasibility of delivering the four doses needed and explore the vaccine’s potential role in reducing the number of children killed by the disease.

The WHO said Malawi, Kenya and Ghana were chosen for the pilot due to several factors, including having high rates of malaria as well as good malaria programmes, wide use of bed-nets and well-functioning immunization programmes.

Each of the three countries will decide on the districts and regions to be included in the pilots, the WHO said, with high malaria areas getting priority since these are where experts expect to see most benefit from the use of the vaccine.  The vaccine was developed by GSK in partnership with the non-profit PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative and part-funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The WHO said in November it had secured full funding for the first phase of the RTS,S pilots, with 15 million from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and up to 27.5 million and 9.6 million respectively from the GAVI Vaccine Alliance and UNITAID for the first four years of the programme.

This significant development will help to address the continuing challenges presented by malaria in Africa in the years ahead and hopefully bring an end to this deadly disease.

Sources:

The Hindu, April 25, 2017. 

Kokwaro G. (2009) Ongoing challenges in the management of malaria. Malaria Journal, 8(Suppl 1):S2 doi:10.1186/1475-2875-8-S1-S2.