Kenya: Gene Editing to Improve Maize Disease Resistance

With Africa’s population expected to double by 2050, the issue of how to feed this rapidly growing population under limited resources is becoming a major agricultural challenge. Furthermore, climate change is intensifying this challenge by negatively influencing crop productivity.

According to Dr. Leena Tripathi, Director East African hub, IITA, there is need to double sustainable agricultural production so as to close the existing yield gap in staple crops in order to enhance food production.

“With the increasing demand for food and limited resources, we need better and more efficient ways to produce food by using all the tools and breading innovations including gene editing,” she said.

In Kenya, maize is the main staple crop, accounting for nearly 12% of the country’s agricultural gross domestic product. However, since 2012, maize productivity has greatly reduced in the country as a result of maize lethal necrosis(MLN) disease.

A survey conducted in 2014 in 36 counties in Kenya show that 195, 695 acres of maize crop were affected by MLN disease translating to total loss of almost Ksh. 33 billion.

Furthermore, most maize varieties available in the country are either high yielding and susceptible to MLN disease or resistant to MLN and low yielding.

It is on this basis that Kenya Livestock and Agriculture Organization (KALRO) in collaboration with CIMMYT, USDA, Bill and Melida Gates Foundation and CORTEV, have adopted the use of gene editing to improve the resistance of maize to necrosis so as to create a variety that is both high yielding and resistant to MLN disease.

According to Dr. James Karanja, Scientist, KALRO, the product would have at least 10% more of yield advantage compared to the varieties currently available in the market and is set to hit the market in the next one year

MLN was first reported in Kenya in 2012 and it has since become a problem to most farmers despite the other interventions. It is transmitted by insects and sometimes the transmission can also be aided by winds.

If attacked by the disease, the chances of getting very low to zero yields from the crop are high depending on the stage it attacked.  The disease causes mottling in crop leaves, stunting and shortened internodes, dead heart of necrosis, sterility and shriveled seeds.

Gene editing is a technology that allows scientists to add, alter or remove DNA in the genome of an organism without inserting any foreign gene. Unlike the GMO products which incorporate foreign gene, genome editing does not incorporate any foreign gene, according to Dr. Tripathi.

Gene editing can be used for gene discovery, nutritional enhancements, yield improvement, biotic stress resistance, a biotic stress and herbicide tolerance for the weed control. Kenya is the second country in Africa after Nigeria, to allow gene edited products in the country.

Currently, there are no gene edited products in Africa, however, a lot of gene editing projects are ongoing in the continent including gene editing for banana, maize, sorghum and yams in Kenya, wheat in Egypt and cassava in south Africa and Uganda.

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