Under the direction of North Carolina State University, CIP participated in the development of the project entitled Genomic Tools for Sweetpotato Improvement (GT4SP). Partners include The Boyce Thomson Institute at Cornell University; Michigan State University; the University of Queensland-Brisbane, Australia; the Uganda National Agricultural Research Organization, National Crops Resources Research Institute; and the Ghana Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Crops Research Institute.
“We are developing suitable populations, and genomic tools, including software and genomic models, to identify marker-trait associations, databases, and the whole genome sequences, in order to support identification of molecular markers linked to important traits in sweetpotato,” says Awais Khan, a plant geneticist at CIP. “We also have a strong capacity building component in the project to train sweetpotato breeders from Africa on molecular marker technology and its use in sweetpotato breeding.”
Khan is serving as the project coordinator for CIP’s portion of the work. CIP Ghana, CIP Kenya, CIP Peru, and CIP Uganda are all contributing resources to the work – a $4.1 million share of the overall the project that totals $12.4 million.
“OFSP is important for food security and human nutrition, particularly in Africa,” continues Khan. “It can grow in poor soils and is quite tolerant to several stresses, but still has the potential for significantly higher yields.” Yet its genetic makeup is complex. OFSP consumed around the world today is hexaploid, meaning it contains six complete sets of chromosomes. The work undertaken in GT4SP, however, will sequence a diploid – or two-chromosome – wild relative of OFSP, Khan says. The sequence and genetic information from the diploid explains the ability of sweetpotato to fight off viruses or withstand drought, for example. This can be translated to the hexaploid, leading to rapid development of better yielding and nutritious OFSP varieties for smallholder farmers in Africa and globally. “This is the first effort of its kind to develop tools to enable genetic improvement in the sweetpotato breeding process,” Khan says.
The four-year GT4SP project, which will last through August 2018, is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
GT4SP is not the first time CIP’s work has been underwritten by the Foundation. The Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa (SASHA) initiative is another beneficiary of funds from the Microsoft founder’s philanthropic concern.