This popular technique is employed by scientists in the global south to protect regional crops against local threats.

Steven Runo, a molecular biologist, believed that his group would be the first to plant “gene-edited seeds” in African soil, making history. However, he soon realized that the competition was tougher than he had expected.

A research group working on maize “beat us by two or three months”, says Runo, who works at Kenyatta University in Nairobi and whose gene-editing project focuses on sorghum. “But that’s good — African countries will see that this is actually possible.”

The healthy rivalry is an indication of development. Researchers believe that the relative ease and low cost of CRISPR gene-editing systems would make it possible for scientists in low- and middle-income countries to produce crops with customized traits to fulfil the demands of local farmers.

Runo is working on several projects, one of which is to genetically modify sorghum to withstand the harmful type of parasitic plant known as witchweed, Striga hermonthica. Runo stated on January 16 at the Plant and Animal Genome Conference in San Diego, California, that field trials of the new type are planned for later this year.

“It’s not as easy as people make it out to be to do gene editing, but it is pretty accessible,” says Kevin Pixley, a research director at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Texcoco, Mexico. “Runo is a perfect example of that.”

CRISPR tackles a sordid weed

Sorghum is a nutrient-rich cereal grain that is used widely in Africa for feedstock, building materials, and food. However, species of Striga, a parasitic plant are present in more than 60% of African farmland. This parasitic plant attaches itself to sorghum roots and drains water and nutrients from the plant. An entire crop can be destroyed by a witchweed infestation.

some wild types of sorghum are resistant to Striga because of mutations that change the crop’s compound production called strigolactones, which encourage the development of Striga seeds. Runo and his associates have tried to mimic the mutation by using CRISPR-Cas9.

In accordance with Kenya’s 2022 regulations that govern gene-edited crops, these plants are treated as conventionally bred crops owing to the absence of foreign DNA. This implies that some of the stringent testing and regulations placed on genetically modified crops containing foreign DNA can be waived for these gene-edited plants. According to Runo, Ethiopia and Uganda are among the other African nations that are anticipated to adopt similar policies to those of Nigeria and Malawi.

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Runo and his associates were granted authorization by Kenyan officials last year to cultivate the modified seeds in accordance with those guidelines, and he intends to begin field research later this year. Runo stated during the conference that it is an important step because Striga is not an issue in affluent areas, meaning that big, international firms have little incentive to produce solutions for it.

looking for cattle with heat tolerance

Additional gene-editing initiatives are in progress to enhance African agricultural output. Researchers at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization in Nairobi, as well as Pixley’s associates, have devised methods of editing maize (corn) to confer resistance to maize lethal necrosis disease. Additionally, they are editing groundnuts to increase their resistance to infection by the fungus that generates aflatoxins, which causes cancer, and pearl millet to lessen the likelihood that its flour will turn rancid soon after milling.

“African livestock is also being edited”. Dan Carlson, chief scientific officer of Recombinetics in Eagan, Minnesota, presented at the Plant and Animal Genome Conference on a study where African varieties of cattle are modified to increase their heat tolerance and protect them from diseases.

According to Klara Fischer, a rural development specialist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, there are still major obstacles to delivering editing crops to the farm, even though gene editing is comparatively inexpensive to carry out in a lab.

“Sometimes the discourse around this technology is overly enthusiastic,” she says. And because the market is unlikely to provide for poor small-scale farmers with limited purchasing power, government involvement would probably still be needed for the gene-edited products to benefit them.

Money and markets

Runo has collaborated with Corteva Agriscience, an Indianapolis, Indiana-based agricultural corporation, and has depended on funding from the US Agency for International Development. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, has provided funding to Pixley and his group, and they have additionally received technical support from Corteva.

Runo is aware that this assistance might not be offered at all times. He is attempting to discover alternate funding sources and reduce the cost of lab equipment and supplies with his team.

Pixley adds that it’s unclear intellectual-property battles over CRISPR gene editing will ultimately affect his efforts in the African region but the international markets, especially Europe, will accept the gene-edited crops.

However, as for local acceptance of the crops, Runo says that he has spoken with the farmers to feel more comfortable with crops developed by a local researcher than with seeds developed abroad. “This is not a multinational company. The people using the technology are people you have grown up with,” he says. “The narrative is very different.”

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