New DNA machine set to improve plant breeding.

A new DNA sequencing machine that is set to revolutionise plant breeding in the country, was recently unveiled at the Nairobi-based African Orphan Crops Consortium Laboratory (AOCC lab) at the World Agroforestry Centre headquarters in Nairobi.
The first of its kind on the continent, the machine known as HiSeq4000 is said to be 150 times faster than DNA sequencing machines currently in the country.
Whereas in the past researchers had to wait for three months to get results, the new technology shortens the duration to three days.
“Scientists will send their materials to the lab and get results only in three days,” said Prof Prasad Hendre, a genomics’ scientist at the lab, which currently works to improve neglected African crops.
The Illumina HiSeq4000 uses innovative patterned flow cell technology to provide rapid, high performance sequencing and will also enable the Consortium to sequence parallel lines from over 20 of the 101 orphaned crops that it deals with. Gene sequencing is vital in increasing agricultural productivity and creating drought tolerant and disease resistant planting materials.
“If maize breeders get DNA signatures associated with a trait that gives the register, breeders will then select that particular plant with the signature and be assured that the first progeny that comes out of the plant will be tolerant to the disease,” said the professor. Similarly, said Hendre, signatures and markers can be discovered for any trade of interest; nutritional content, yield and long shelf-life.
“Add nutrients because many of the trees which have not been domesticated have a lot of ant nutrients that might cause a lot of allergies. You can then find a marker /DNA that is linked to that bitter taste and see to it that what you are planting does not have that DNA,” he continued.
While launching the machine, the scientists called on the government to invest in ‘neglected African crops’ to enhance food security. Prof Hendre noted that about 101 orphaned crops have not undergone genetic improvements like the top 10 agricultural crops.
“At the AOCC lab we are working on 101 orphaned crops, 50 of them are trees. What we currently have is whatever our grandfathers selected based on the needs at that time; hence, the need to improve them for fruits or sweetness,” Mr Hendre told Smart Farmer.
The continent, he says, is still not ready in terms of genomic improvements because of a host of challenges including political, financial and technological reasons.
Most breeding programmes are still very conventional such that finding the right planting material from a population can take a decade.
The consortium is sequencing ‘neglected African crops’ such as finger millets, pumpkins, dolichos beans (njahi), amaranth, tamarind (mkwanju) and oil palm, among other traditional crops to improve them and make them broadly available to smallholder farmers.

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