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Bill Gates, once simply of Microsoft fame, is now as famous for his dedication to reducing hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa and other goals that drive the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He recently visited Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) Plant, Soil and Nutrition Research Unit in Ithaca, NY, to learn what two geneticists are doing to improve crop breeding decisions that could be used in that part of the world.
At the research unit, ARS geneticist Edward Buckler is turning the encyclopedic amount of genetic information he has developed about corn into helping the crop yield the kind of improvements in Africa that have been made in North America. Varieties bred for North American climates simply do not work in Africa where they currently produce only about one-fifth the harvest they do in this country. Millions of hungry and extremely poor people can’t afford the hundred years it would take for conventional breeding that was once the path taken in the United States.
But today, Buckler can pinpoint the exact genes that control a trait like resistance to a disease or drought tolerance, so there is no need to grow a generation of offspring out and test them before selecting parents for the next generation. With this knowledge and genetic selection tools that Jannink has created, the time to develop a precise new corn variety may be cut from 15 years to as little as 5 years.
Buckler and his team have already succeeded by finding genes within the corn genome for higher levels of carotenoid (pro-vitamin A) to help solve vitamin A deficiencies that cause childhood blindness and immune problems in sub-Saharan Africa. From these key genes, breeders have developed corn varieties that naturally have 15 times more pro-Vitamin A.
ARS geneticist Jean-Luc Jannink is similarly spring boarding improvements in cassava, one of sub-Saharan Africa’s indispensable crops, using “genomic selection,” a statistical method combining genetic data with measurements of traits in a training population to predict the outcome of crossing two particular parent plants. Then he only makes the crosses that give offspring with the desired traits.
He and a team of graduate students collaborate with national cassava breeding programs of Nigeria, Uganda and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture. They do the DNA sequencing and the predictions in Ithaca. Then the programs in Africa do the crosses based on Jannink’s predictions side by side with their own crosses based on more conventional breeding. In another year or two, there should be enough progress to compare the methods.
After spending a few hours at the ARS lab, learning about faster plant breeding, Bill Gates wrote in his blog: “Ed Buckler and his colleagues aren’t just experts in their field—they’re also deeply passionate about their work. I can see why: The advances they’re working on will change people’s lives by dramatically accelerating a process that is now slow and laborious.”