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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


UA to improve Africa’s food

A team of UA researchers is working on combating a disease in cassava — the main food source for about 700 million people in central and eastern Africa. The team has released a “”first draft”” of the cassava genome to help researchers tackle the brown streak virus, which attacks the edible roots of the plant.

“”We set the goal to try to improve crops and quality of life. Hopefully because of (the draft), we would achieve that much, much sooner,”” Judith Brown, a UA professor of plant sciences. Their work is designed to make virus-resistant cassava plants. If they are successful, the project will also impact areas other than Africa, such as South America, where the plant is originally from.

“”We have a draft of (the) genome, and are just beginning the work directed at the virus disease,”” said Steve Rounsley, the lead investigator and a UA professor of plant sciences.

Rounsley said it will be at least five years before African farmers actually see some benefits in their crops.

“”Obviously it’s a good feeling to do research that helps people, but we’re not there yet. We have to deliver on the promise,”” he said.   

The same day the draft of the genome was released, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave the UA $1.3 million to use over the next three years to continue its research.

The grant is for three years, but Rounsley said his team’s work will continue even after the grant money runs out.  

He has been working on the cassava plant since 2005, but most of his work was only recently completed, within the last year.  

“”(I got involved) because these are the kinds of problems that are at the heart of why we study science, to make a difference in the world outside the laboratory,”” Rounsley said.

The UA team is small, but is part of an international effort with people in multiple institutions in the U.S. and Africa.

The UA team is working with Claude Fauquet, an adjunct professor of plant sciences at the University of Missouri.

Fauquet believes Rounsley and his team have made significant strides with their latest research and a full genome of the cassava plant would do a lot of things.

“”The first one is a bridge to all plant genomes, from which we can retrieve an enormous amount of information about all genes,”” he said. “”Second, we can make a high-density map of markers to map all interesting traits of cassava to improve the crop quicker and better.””

This is important because Rounsley says cassava is the major source of calories for millions of the world’s poorest farmers.  

“”It grows in marginal conditions, where crops such as corn won’t grow,”” he said.

Rounsley said, however, that the plant is not very nutritious.

“”It lacks protein, iron, zinc and several vitamins,”” Rounsley said. “”It’s fine to supplement other foods, but if it’s your main calorie source then you have a problem.””  

The UA team’s research doesn’t directly address nutritional value, but other researchers are working to make the plant more nutritious.

“”If we have a problem, we look for a way to solve it. All around us you see evidence that science can help us solve problems,”” Brown said.

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