African scientists urge use of gene editing to improve crops

By Verenardo Meeme

September 4, 2019

Though genome editing tools should be integrated into Africa’s farming systems to boost crops yields, enhance nutrition and accelerate the breeding process for new varieties, they must be accompanied by new communication efforts, scientists say.

‘‘Gene editing provides an opportunity to capture the tremendous potential for African scientists to develop homegrown solutions to food security and climate change by producing high-yielding seeds [that are] disease- and pest-resistant with a sound, diverse nutritional base,’’ said Prof. Yaye Gassama, chair of the African Union’s High-level Panel on Emerging Technologies (APET) and vice chair of the National Science Academy of Senegal.

However, she and other scientists attending the recent Africa Biennial Biosciences Communication (ABBC) symposium in Pretoria, South Africa, noted that new communication efforts must be initiated to ensure the technology is understood and accepted from the onset.

“We need new words to explain gene editing as it is opening new windows in health and agricultural research,” Gassama said. Gene editing is the practice of making precise changes to the genetic code of an organism to alter its phenotypic traits.

Genome editing can be particularly effective in helping smallholder farmers deal with climate change by reducing the timeline to create new varieties of high-yield, resilient seeds that integrate stress-tolerance, pest-resistance and nutrients, she said.  Africa has missed out on various innovations in the past and should step forward and invest resources to build sufficient capacity to advance gene editing research, Gassama added.

Benjamin Ubi, a professor of plant breeding and biotechnology at Ebonyi State University in Nigeria, agreed that genome editing, when adopted, will transform Africa’s agricultural sector, increase productivity and generate income that will improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.

Africa must build capacity, establish legislation that will favor the use and implementation of gene editing, provide the necessary facilities for a conducive research environment and fund scientists who are working on genome editing, he said.

Dr. Leena Tripathi, plant biotechnologist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), is already using gene editing to develop disease-resistant banana varieties, focusing on banana bacterial wilt, fusarium wilt and banana streak virus“We have a proof of concept,” she told the Alliance for Science. “We are now improving the parents so that we can cross them and make the plantain hybrid. But it will take four to five years to have the product.’’

Dr. Leena Tripathi

Gene editing and genetic modification are two important powerful tools that scientists need to use, Tripathi said. For instance, according to a study in Kenya, yield losses of 10 to 100 percent have been reported in bananas depending on the stage of growth, susceptibility of the cultivars and prevailing climatic conditions. “We have all the facilities and capacity to move ahead in utilizing genome editing,” Tripathi confirmed.

Though CRISPR Cas 9 is seen as a genetic engineering tool that is relatively easy to use and simple to adopt, it faces regulatory hurdles in Africa and the European Union. However, Kenya is now leading African countries since it has begun drafting guidelines to regulate gene-edited products. The draft guidelines define what needs to be regulated, what is partially regulated and what is not regulated at all.

“We now have a regulatory draft that can be presented to wider stakeholders,” said Prof. Dorington Ogoyi, chief executive officer of Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority (NBA). “It gives a roadmap on how we want to regulate gene-editing.”

The NBA received two gene editing applications in late 2018 that initially focused on the improvement of banana and yam. “We allowed the project to continue under contained use regulations,” Ogoyi said.

“We need to move with the rest of the world in the use of bio-economy,” noted Dr. Douglas Miano, a lecturer in virology and biotechnology at the University of Nairobi. “We have started using genome editing even though it is still at preliminary stage. Students are also warming up to the technology.”

Dr. Douglas Miano

For instance, Kenyan-based Pwani University students are conducting research on enhanced shelf life for cassava, focusing on reducing the speed at which cassava deteriorates, especially during post-harvest, to give farmers an additional 12 to 72 hours to process the crop.

‘‘Gene editing is already revolutionizing agriculture and will contribute in building the Kenyan economy,” Miano said. “Scientists are interested in solving the problems and we all belong to this country.”