January 31, 2013

Cornell Will Use $25M Grant To Engineer Sustainable Crop

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The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation –– in collaboration with the Department for International Development of the United Kingdom –– has awarded a $25.2-million grant to Cornell to improve  breeding of cassava, a carbohydrate-rich tuber plant, in Africa.

Though cassava may not be familiar to many Americans, “[cassava] is a huge food staple and food security crop” in Africa, according to Linda McCandless, communications director for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

One of the ways the project hopes to improve the cultivation of cassava is by shortening its breeding cycle, which is currently  five years, according to Erica Barnell ’13, a student who will be traveling to Africa this summer to work on the cassava project.

“Cassava is great in terms of energy density, but it has the lowest protein content of any food staple crop,” she said.

The grant will also allow Cornell to bring seven students from Nigeria and Uganda to campus. Four of these students will come to Cornell to earn their Ph.D.s in plant breeding and genetics, according to Dr. Hale Ann Tufan, the project manager for the grant.

The idea for the grant was sparked when members of the Gates Foundation convened at the 2011 Plant and Animal Genome conference in San Diego, in which attendees met to discuss research and future plans in the field, Tufan said.

“Everyone sat around a table and talked about how they could improve cassava,” she said.

Cornell scientists will work to improve the efficiency of cassava by developing breeding methods to increase flowering using genomic selection, a new method that uses statistical modeling to predict how a plant will perform in its environment, according to Tufan.

Tufan said that she hopes the grant funding will help “[shorten the breeding cycle] down to one year, or even two.”

The initiative will help improve cassava efficiency both through research on Cornell’s campus and through project implementation in Africa, according to Tufan.

“The [Bill and Melinda Gates] Foundation trusts in project implementation and the science run in our faculty departments, creating a natural collaboration with this grant,” she said.

The cassava grant follows several other scientific collaborations between Cornell and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, according to McCandless.

“[Cornell] has a really good track record with the Gates Foundation because of the durable rust resistance in wheat project. Scientists here also have great expertise in the genomic selection technologies that will be used in the cassava project,” she said.

In addition to improving cassava breeding, the grant will also be used to ensure the project is sustainable, according to Tufan.

“We are going to do a lot of training and give a lot of time over in Africa by running [plant breeding] workshops,” she said.

The importance of cassava as a staple crop is indescribable, according to Tufan.

“I had one Kenyan say to me, ‘Cassava saved my life; when everything fails, it is still there,” he said.

Original Author: Shane Dunau