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WA scientists saving African cassava crops

Leaves of a cassava plant,      

Image credit: Pixabay

Leaves of a cassava plant, Image credit: Pixabay

Ashleigh Melanko, ECU Reporter

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Researchers from UWA have teamed up with local farmers and British company Oxford Nanopore Technologies, to use portable DNA sequencing help farmers in East Africa eradicate crop disease.

“Crop disease affects crops differently depending on the type of disease. Diseases are caused by plant pathogens including fungi, bacteria, virus, nematodes (roundworms) or rusts,” Grains Executive Officer from WA Farmers, Maddison McNeil, told ECU Daily.

“Diseases are quite common and have varying degrees of severity,” she added.

Nanopore Technologies has helped develop the sequencer, which they call MinION. It is being used by the UWA team to identify what virus is destroying the cassava crops in Uganda and Tanzania.

“MinION is the world’s only portable, realtime DNA sequencer. This means that it can determine the order of ‘bases’ in DNA or RNA molecules that determine many things about living organisms, including how they grow, how they function and how they respond to environments or disease,” Zoe McDougall from Nanopore Tech told ECU Daily.

The crop being threatened, cassava, is a woody, starchy and edible root that is mainly found in subtropical and tropical areas. It is a source of food in these areas and provides for more than half a billion people, so protecting the crop and increasing yields is important.  

Cassava crops have fallen victim to several diseases before, including cassava brown steak disease and cassava mosaic disease, which resulted in major famines in the 1920s and 1990s.

These diseases stop the growth of cassava plants, while also making them unsellable and inedible. 

Senior lecturer from UWA Laura Boykin described how the portable sequencer works: “It plugs into a laptop and you add DNA to the device and electricity runs through the DNA which creates a frequency signature that is turned in DNA data,” she said.

Every virus has a different DNA structure.

“You need to understand that a virus is made up of either DNA or RNA, and if you can understand the order of DNA/RNA bases then you can identify which virus it is, very precisely,” Ms McDougall explained.

“It was important to understand what virus is affecting a crop so that the right action can be taken. With cassava a variety of different viruses would be devastating a crop but different action would be taken according to which one,” she added.

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WA scientists saving African cassava crops