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In Pursuit of Food Security

Linda Seaton
| Nov 05, 2013

food securityFor several decades, agrigenomics studies have focused on improving the quality and quantity of exportable crops (corn, wheat, and rice), identifying markers for increased yield and disease resistance. Analysis of bovine, ovine, and porcine genomes has identified markers associated with higher meat and milk production. Yet, in areas of the world where food security is of greatest concern, the ability to purchase grains or livestock products is beyond reach. These communities need higher yielding local crops and more robust livestock to provide sustainable sources of protein and carbohydrates to improve nutrition.

Recognizing that its technology could play a critical role in alleviating global hunger, malnutrition, and poverty, Illumina created the Agricultural Greater Good initiative. Each year, Illumina awards Greater Good initiative grants to agricultural research organizations that are focused on identifying and breeding plants and animals that will increase the sustainability, productivity, and nutritional density of crop and livestock species. Under the grants, Illumina next-generation sequencing (NGS) and genotyping reagents are provided free of charge.

Five organizations have received the award to date and over the past year I’ve had the chance to talk with representatives from each of them. They were truly eye-opening conversations:

For Michael Thomson, Ph.D. at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), sustainable rice farming begins with capacity building. ILRI is focused on teaching rice researchers from around the world how to leverage genomics technology to develop better rice varieties, including ones that can withstand the impact of climate change. Researchers educated in ILRI’s workshops are now using molecular breeding approaches to accelerate the selection of important traits, such as heat and salt tolerance.

Not all goats are created equal. It turns out the milk production of African goats is about half that of their European cousins. This lower protein yield is a problem in an area of the world that’s on the threshold of not producing enough food for its inhabitants. By sequencing the goat genome, Tad Sonstegard, Ph.D. and his research team at the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA hope to determine the genetic differences of the world’s goat populations, particularly the genes for drought tolerance, protein yield, and resistance to parasitic stress.

Pigeonpea and cassava plants thrive under drought conditions and are a vital part of the sustainable agriculture in Africa and Asia. Pigeonpea is an income-producing crop that is facing destruction by a pair of viral diseases. The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) team under the direction of Rajeev Varshney, Ph.D., is using NGS to identify the genetic markers for viral disease resistance, higher yield, protein content, and early maturity. A different pair of viral diseases is negatively impacting the cultivation of cassava in East Africa. Responsible for more than 50% of their daily carbohydrate intake, Sub-Saharan farmers are struggling to keep their crops disease free. Appolinaire Djikeng, Ph.D. and his team at the BecA-ILRI research hub are investigating the causes and transmission of these viral diseases, and using NGS to identify markers for resistance and susceptibility.

The majestic baobab tree is a fixture on the African savannah. Capable of living thousands of years, it provides shelter, food, and water for people and animals. Because it’s a succulent, it’s not under threat from logging. Yet it’s such a vital part of the ecosystem on the African plains that the Genome Analysis Center at Monsanto is sequencing the baobab genome to understand what contributes to its longevity. Todd Michael, Ph.D., the former head of the Center, believes the work will enable scientists to protect and sustain the baobab, and inform our understanding of tree evolution.

The 2014 winner (or winners) of the Greater Good award will be announced at the Plant and Animal Genome (PAG) Conference in San Diego, California (January 11-15). Stay tuned!

Edited 5 December to correct the International Rice Research Institute acronym (IRRI).