KENYA – The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) recently introduced a five-year program titled the African Plant Breeding Academy (AfPBA) CRISPR Course in Nairobi, Kenya, to provide technical training in gene education hence help in reducing food insecurity and malnutrition exacerbated by climate change.

The program, launched in collaboration 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), is the first hands-on training course in Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR).

It will enable 80–100 scientists to employ the technology to improve crops.

“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 Mobilization at the AOCC and directs the African Plant Breeding Academy.

The first cohort comprised of 11 scientists with doctoral degrees from seven African nations (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Morocco, Nigeria, and Sudan).

They were interested in improving their knowledge of advanced crop breeding using CRISPR, a tool that enables researchers to make precise and targeted changes to the DNA sequences of living organisms, including crops.

Participants are on full scholarships based on applications for each class thanks to the kind support of Bayer, Syngenta, UM6P Ventures associated with Mohammed VI Polytechnic University in Morocco, the US-based Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR), and other contributors.

Significantly, the African Union Development Agency – New Partnership for African Development (AUDA-NEPAD) fully endorses the course.

With the use of technology, plant breeders will be able to generate more resilient crop types that can withstand biotic and abiotic challenges, boost yields, and contain more vitamins and minerals that are essential for human growth and health.

“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 rigorous 6-week program for the 11 PhD-level scientists will be conducted over three sessions of two weeks at World Agroforestry in Nairobi, Kenya, and IITA on the ILRI campus.

They will also receive mentorship after the course, continuous assistance, and support for maintaining lab productivity after the course has ended and for establishing international relationships for commercialization and value chain development.

The scientists are employed by organizations that have either made a commitment to start gene editing research in crop plants after their staff members complete the program or are already conducting it.

Dr Leena Tripathi, Director of the Eastern Africa Hub and Biotechnology Lead at IITA, noted that gene editing is a new powerful tool added to the toolbox for crop improvement.

However, he says, 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.

“Imagine how such a training program can impact the food and nutritional security of African countries!” explained Dr Leena.

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