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January 18, 2010

Gates Foundation to fund cassava disease research in East Africa

by Mike Mande

The fight against cassava diseases in sub Saharan Africa has received a $2.4 boost from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in partnership with the Agricultural Research Institute of Tanzania and the National Agricultural Research Organisation of Uganda.

The funding will be used to breed cassava varieties resistant to cassava brown streak disease. The disease, which is caused by the cassava brown streak virus and results in a dry rot in the tuberous roots rendering them inedible, is one of greatest threats to food security in sub-Saharan Africa as cassava is an important staple food from which over 200 million people derive over 50 per cent of their carbohydrate intake.

IITA and ARI have identified a few varieties with some level of resistance to the disease. The four-year project, under financial assistance from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, seeks to identify the DNA markers associated with the resistance genes in these varieties and integrate marker-assisted selection into cassava breeding programmes.

Marker-assisted breeding will enable the breeders to determine whether the desired genes of the disease resistance have been successfully transferred from the parents to the offspring at the seedling stage using DNA testing.

According to the team project leader at IITA Dr Morag Ferguson, the breeding for disease-resistant cassava is the most cost-effective and sustainable way to control the devastating effects of the virus. Ferguson said that conventional breeding takes eight to 12 years to produce improved varieties.

The project will enable one of the first applications of marker-assisted selection for cassava breeding by the National Agricultural Research Systems in Tanzania and Uganda.

The markers identified will also be applicable to all countries either struggling with the disease, or concerned with pre-breeding in anticipation of the spread of the virus.

Dr. Lawrence Kent, Senior Program Officer in the Agricultural Development initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said that the diseases like Cassava Brown Streak have devastating impacts on small scale farmers in the developing world who rely on staple crops for food and income.

Kent said that by leveraging recently discovered scientific information, this project will enable African crop breeders to create enhanced varieties of cassava that are resilient to local diseases.

This grant is part of the foundation’s Agricultural Development initiative, which is working with a wide range of partners in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia to provide millions of small farmers in the developing world with tools and opportunities to boost their yields, increase their incomes, and build better lives for themselves and their families.

The foundation is working to strengthen the entire agricultural value chain-from seeds and soil to farm management and market access-so that progress against hunger and poverty is sustainable over the long term.

The East African

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