The baobab is one of over 100 backyard African plants and trees commonly neglected by research that will be genetically sequenced through the consortium. According to Xun Xu, deputy director of the Beijing Genomics Institute, the project will facilitate solutions to better seeds by creating an open access genome. The consortium includes public and private partners from China, the United States, and Africa.
“Indigenous crop research has lagged behind in Africa with both international and local institutions phasing in maize, wheat, and a small range of pulses. Seed companies have also concentrated on the same crops, which have high turnover both in volume and sales. This has resulted in improved indigenous crops not being available to farming communities,” Kenya’s Agriculture Secretary Felix Koskei said during a speech at the World Agroforestry Center, a global CGIAR research centers.
The baobab is high in Vitamin C and other nutrients. Varieties of the baobab tree can be found all across sub-Saharan Africa. According to Alice Muchugi, Genebank Manager at the World Agroforestry Center, the baobab leaves are eaten as vegetables in West Africa, while its pulp is incorporated into porridge, juices, and other food products across the continent. Additionally, the pulp can be used by food processors for cooking oil, ice cream, sodas, energy bars, cookies, jams, and even cosmetic products.
According to Allen Van Deynze, Director of Research at the University of California–Davis Seed Biotechnology Center, crops take six to nine months to sequence depending on the complexity of the plant. Each crop in the program will have 100 different lines sequenced to give breeders information on the diverse characteristics of the crop. “The diversity [of the baobab] is incredible,” said Van Deynze. “I’ve seen tiny pods to very large pods […] and the nutritional content is quite different between those.”
Breeders will be able to select baobab lines that have high nutritional value and grow well. The baobab produces during droughts while other crops fail. However, “its slow growth hinders its establishment on farms,” said Muchugi. “There is need to improve the trees’ growing characteristics.”
Sequencing of the baobab began in July; the first few lines are already complete, while sequencing of finger millet and the African eggplant has also begun. “We have an ambitious list of 25 crops to be sequenced in 2014,” said Muchugi. Other orphan crops to be genetically mapped include okra, amaranth, guava, taro, Jack tree (jackfruit), acacia, chocolate berries, shea butter, sweet bush mango, and groundnut.
The information will be put into a genetic bank with the National Center for Biotechnology Information and backed up by both the Beijing Genomics Institute and the World Agroforestry Center. Once the genome is complete, interested breeders can create an account with the virtual organization iPlant Collaborative and search the database for certain traits. “The information is provided freely to benefit as many African breeders as possible who would not access it if a cost was placed on the generated information,” said Muchugi.
Other partners include the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development agency and Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa – International Livestock Research Institute, as well as Mars, Incorporated, the World Wildlife Fund, and Life Technologies.
A second undertaking of the African Orphan Crops Consortium includes the training of African plant breeders—many whom work for national research institutes—in genomics and marker-assisted selection for crop improvement. The current class represents 11 African countries and includes four women. “There was an effort to represent as many countries as possible and maintain as equitable a balance between female and male participants as possible,” said Muchugi.
Each class will complete three two-week sessions over a 13-month period. The first class will complete the program this December, and the consortium plans to conduct trainings for the next five years.