IITA and partners train African scientists on CRISPR technology to adapt to climate change impacts in agriculture

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To help reduce food insecurity and malnutrition aggravated by climate change, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in partnership with the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI) at UC Berkeley, and other members of the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC), and World Agroforestry, officially launched the African Plant Breeding Academy (AfPBA) CRISPR Course on 23 January 2023, in Nairobi, Kenya, for technical training in gene editing for crop improvement.

This program is the first hands-on training course on CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) for national program scientists in Africa and will run for five years to empower 80-100 scientists to use the CRISPR technology for crop improvement.

“This training is the first of its kind to impart knowledge, skills and tools to accomplish gene editing in crop plants to national program scientists in Africa,” said Dr Rita Mumm who oversees Capacity Building and Mobilisation at the AOCC and directs the African Plant Breeding Academy.

This first cohort included 11 doctorate-level scientists from seven African countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Morocco, Nigeria, and Sudan) desiring to upgrade their skills in advanced crop breeding using CRISPR, a tool that
allows scientists to make precise and specific changes to DNA sequences in living organisms, including crops. The technology will enable plant breeders to improve crop varieties for resiliency to climate change, and biotic and abiotic stresses as well as increased yield and nutritional content for important vitamins and minerals, which are critical for human health and development.

“We are honored to be working with the top institutions in the world in this Academy that will enable Africans to drive innovation critical to improving African crops to eliminate stunting due to malnutrition,” added Dr Allen Van Deynze, Director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis and Scientific Director of the AOCC.

The 11 PhD-level scientists will go through an intensive 6-week program, delivered in three 2-week sessions at IITA on the ILRI campus and World Agroforestry in Nairobi, Kenya. Moreover, they will get post-course mentorship and ongoing support for sustained lab productivity beyond course completion and the founding of transnational partnerships for commercialization and value chain development. The scientists work at institutions that are already undertaking research in gene editing in crop plants or have committed to doing so upon their employee’s graduation from the course.

“Gene editing is a new powerful tool added to the toolbox for crop improvement. However, there is a need to build a critical mass of trained molecular scientists to utilize the full potential of this technology for improving African staple crops. The AfPBA CRISPR course provides African scientists the opportunity to enhance their capacity and get mentorship for applying gene editing to the priority crops of their institutes and national programs for important traits,”
explained Dr Leena Tripathi, Director of the Eastern Africa Hub and Biotechnology Lead at IITA. “Imagine how such a training program can impact the food and nutritional security of African countries!”

From the generous support of Bayer, Syngenta, UM6P Ventures affiliated with Mohammed VI Polytechnic University in Morocco, and the US-based Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) and other donors, participants are on full scholarship based on applications for each class. Importantly, the course has full endorsement of the African Union Development Agency – New Partnership for African Development (AUDA-NEPAD).

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