The cassava plant, whose starchy roots bring food and income to over 800 million people, has not gotten its due in terms of research funding. That’s changing with the $62 million Next Generation Cassava Breeding project, funded by the UK and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Geneticist Ismail Rabbi of Nigeria is working to develop cassava varieties to increase yields and fight cassava mosaic disease; the crop is a staple for African, Asian and South American populations. Rabbi is using genomic data to pinpoint needed traits to breed.
African cassava volumes are smaller but more resistant to mosaic disease, while Asian and American varieties grow more volume but don’t fare well against the disease. Using genetic markets, researchers have bred eight varieties using conventional breeding to test in Nigeria.
“Genomic selection is not a panacea,” Rabbi says. “But plot testing is so expensive that at least this helps you whittle it down.”
Farmers in South America, Thailand, and the Pacific Islands will mix resistant traits from Africa into their crops (hopefully in 2020) using conventional breeding, not genetic engineering.
In 2005, the Gates Foundation funded development of genetically modified BioCassava Plus, designed to enhance nutrients. But African farmers couldn’t afford the herbicides required for growing the GMO variety.
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