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Africa: sequence 100,000 species to safeguard biodiversity

ThankGod Echezona Ebenezer, Anne W. T. Muigai, Simplice Nouala, Bouabid Badaoui, Mark Blaxter, Alan G. Buddie, Erich D. Jarvis, Jonas Korlach, Josiah O. Kuja, Harris A. Lewin, Roksana Majewska, Ntanganedzeni Mapholi, Suresh Maslamoney, Michèle Mbo’o-Tchouawou, Julian O. Osuji, Ole Seehausen, Oluwaseyi Shorinola, Christian Keambou Tiambo, Nicola Mulder, Cathrine Ziyomo & Appolinaire Djikeng

AfricaBP will bring together national and regional institutions, countries and corporations, including already recognized genomics infrastructures, such as the National Institute for Biomedical Research in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The project has three main goals.

Key priorities

1) Improve food systems.

The first goal is to provide a resource that enables plant and animal breeders to use various approaches (from conventional breeding to gene editing) to build resilient and sustainable food systems. A 2021 genome analysis8 of 245 Ethiopian indigenous chickens, for instance, revealed the genetic basis of various adaptations that enable the chickens to tolerate harsh environmental conditions (from cold temperatures to water scarcity)— crucial information for poultry producers worldwide. To help achieve this goal, AfricaBP will partner with the African Plant Breeding Academy and the African Animal Breeding Network, both of which were established in the past decade to improve African breeders’ training and research practices.

2) Improve conservation.

The second goal is to make it easier for researchers to identify species and populations that are at risk of extinction, and to design and implement effective conservation strategies. A 2020 study9 on the genetic structure of African savannah elephant populations, for example, revealed that the long-term survival of the elephants requires establishing at least 14 wildlife

corridors between 16 of the protected areas in Tanzania. Similarly, a genome study10 of 13 individuals representing 2 subspecies of eastern gorilla showed that inbreeding has led to the purging of severely harmful recessive mutations from one of the subspecies (Gorilla beringei beringei, or mountain gorillas). The accumulation of such damaging mutations in eastern gorillas over the past 100,000 years has reduced their resilience to environmental change and pathogen evolution.

3) Improve sharing of data and benefits.

The third goal is to kick-start a process in which existing multilateral agreements around data sharing are improved and harmonized across the continent — to ensure that the benefits derived from genetic resources are shared equitably across Africa. In 2010, nations adopted the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefits Sharing to ensure that the benefits arising from the use of biological resources are shared fairly. Certainly, any benefit derived from the genetic resources obtained through AfricaBP should be shared by the people of Africa — whether it be a superior strain of drought-resistant sugar beet (Beta macrocarpa Guss) or a new drug derived from the rooibos plant (Aspalathus linearis). As written, however, the Nagoya Protocol has gaps when it comes to Africa. It fails to take into account the customs and practices of the diverse ethnic groups across the continent.

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