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Why African scientists are studying genes of African species and how they do so
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Why African scientists are studying genes of African species and how they do so

A small rodent with a long thin nose and a body that's reddish-brown


The blueprint of life is DNA. It contains all the information an organism needs to survive, reproduce and adapt to new environments or survive a disease.

That’s why genomics – studying DNA and genes – is so important. It involves sequencing species’ parts or the entire genome. This is a scientific method to determine an organism’s DNA by breaking these components into fragments and determining their compositions or sequences. These fragments are then aligned to create the original sequence.

This gives researchers critical information. They can learn how they can prevent and treat diseases, as well as how to breed better crops and animals. These traits can help species adapt to changing environments (which is more important than ever in this era of climate change) and increase their profitability.

But there’s a large gap in genomics research: barely anything is known about the genomics of African species. This is despite the continent’s rich biological diversity. It has Both plants and animals that aren’t found anywhere else in the world.

These species have been providing people in Africa with food, medicines, and a way for life for centuries. For example, people in the continent’s dry regions have long kept indigenous cattle, sheep and goats. These animals provide income and food in areas that can’t support crop production.

The global genomic community has ignored African species. Scientists tend not to pay attention to other countries or regions. Africa’s own genome sequencing and bioinformatics capacity is limited, so the continent’s scientists haven’t been able to do the necessary work. Only a small fraction of the species that are endemic to Africa have been sequenced and properly characterized using other scientific methods.

The African BioGenome Project(AfricaBP), aims to change that. It’s a pan-African project that seeks to sequence Africa’s endemic and indigenous plants and animals. That’s an Estimated 105,000 species. We are three of the more that 109 African scientists who were part of the project. The results were published recently Position paper in Nature outlining the consortium’s vision for the next 10 years.

The Sequencing of the human genomeThe US-led effort “Human Genome Project” shows the direct and indirect benefits of this type work. The Human Genome Project led advancements in genomics as well as precision medicine. It spurred innovation in equipment, technologies, infrastructure, and other areas that led to new discoveries. US$265 trillion annuallyFor the US economy by 2019.

AfricaBP also aims to attract more students and early career researchers to genomics and related fields – and to encourage them to stay on the continent so that African countries benefit from their skills. This could be done by collaborating with African institutions to offer permanent positions in bioinformatics and genomics.

An important investment

Genome sequencing is a complex process. It is important to collect species from the right locations, process them and control their quality before sequencing them. Then, it is important to study each sequence carefully.

AfricaBP works closely alongside its scientific communities and partners in order to select species for sequencing. We will be contacting scientists from across Africa to solicit nominations. Some species have been selected, including the Checkered Elephant Shrew (Rhynchocyon Cirnei) in Central and South-East Africa and the red mangrove tree (Rhizophora mangle) in West Africa).

A small rodent with a long thin nose and a body that's reddish-brown
The genomes of the Checkered Elephant Shrew will be sequenced.
Michael Sloviak/Shutterstock

Researchers are asked to explain the species’ scientific, cultural and economic significance. We want the species we sequence be of use to a community or communities. Their documentation through sequencing efforts could make them even more vulnerable.

Continue reading:
The Human Genome Project pieced together only 92% of the DNA – now scientists have finally filled in the remaining 8%

Some may raise their eyebrows at the project’s projected cost: about US$1 billion over the next 10 years to complete the planned sequencing, develop infrastructure and train more scientists. It might seem like an unjustified expense given Africa’s urgent needs, such as food security.

Genomics can help to address some these needs. New technologies will make it possible to provide nutritious food for an ever-growing population. They will reduce the breeding time and select for traits that make crops adaptable, hardy, and nutritious. For example, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry AreasRabat, Morocco Screened 5,780 wild cropsIt also found that some crops, such as sugar beet or pea can withstand severe desertification. These crops’ genes could be transferred to related crops to help deal with arid conditions.

This type of science has been proven to drive economic growth through related fields like biopharmaceuticals and diagnostics, and by providing innovative health care. The US’s human genetics and genomics industry It has been foundSupported more than 850,000 jobs and contributed US$265 Billion to the US economy.

Retaining African talent

This initiative will benefit African science. AfricaBP already has 109 African researchers. Most of them (87), are based at 22 institutions on the continent in countries like South Africa, Nigeria, Cameroon and Cameroon.

It is important to develop a better infrastructure for African genomic research. This will allow researchers to stay on the continent and harness their expertise for their countries and regions. It is important to involve more African scientists in home-grown research projects that are focused on national priorities.

In the next decade we hope that AfricaBP will be part of efforts to prioritise genomic sequencing – and help reap its benefits for the continent.

The authors acknowledge the contributions of Fatu Badiane markey, Girish Badaoui and Katali Benda.


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