Building capacity for better conservation and use of Africa’s animal genetic resources: Burkina Faso workshop

Jeremy Ouedraogo, Minister of Livestock and Fisheries, Burkina Faso

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Diana Brandes-van Dorresteijn

Jeremy Ouedraogo, Minister of Livestock and Fisheries in Burkina Faso, attended a Regional Capacity Development Workshop in Animal Genetic Resources in Sub-Saharan Africa, held in the capital of Ouagadougou, 4 to 6 November, 2013.

Sub-Saharan Africa has only a handful of qualified livestock breeders and geneticists. Regional collaboration among scientists and institutions in this area provides rare opportunities to exchange information, pull together resources, network with other professionals, and partner strategic organizations.

Addressing more than 75 representatives from 22 sub-Saharan countries before meeting with the UN Secretary General Ban-Ki-Moon on 6 November, Minister Ouedraogo highlighted the need for regional cooperation among individuals and institutions given the region’s scarcity of qualified livestock breeders. He pointed out the urgent need for more appropriate breeding strategies and schemes that will ease access by poor farmers herding livestock in harsh environments to superior livestock germplasm. He thanked ILRI and its partners for supporting Africa’s Global Action Plan on Animal Genetic Resources, which was endorsed by African governments in 2007.

The minister referred to collaboration between ILRI and partners that has effectively built investments, programs and capacity in this area. Best practices must be captured for replication and scaling up, he said. While research should benefit local communities, he said, the scale of the impacts of research depend largely on whether national policies, national budget allocations and national development plans reflect the importance of better use of native livestock resources and allocate funds for developing national capacity in this area.

The minister encouraged the workshop participants to engage actively with those developing a second State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources report, due to be published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2014.

APM 2013: How can we unlock the genetic potentials of local livestock breeds?

The workshop was organized by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). In partnership with FAO, the African Union–Interafrican Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR) and the Tertiary Education for Agriculture Mechanism for Africa (TEAM-Africa), ILRI and SLU are holding regional back-to-back workshops this November in Burkina Faso, Rwanda and Botswana. The purpose is to strengthen regional platforms boosting knowledge exchange, collaboration and capacity in improved conservation and use of Africa’s animal genetic resources.

CGIAR and ILRI have worked together with SLU for a decade to develop capacity in animal genetic resources work. Groups of selected ‘champions’ of this work have been given training in their home institutions by the ILRI/SLU project to advance animal genetic resources teaching in higher education and research work within and outside the university.

Abdou Fall

Abdou Fall, ILRI representative for Burkina Faso and West Africa (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan)

In an opening address to the workshop, Abdou Fall, ILRI’s country and West Africa’s regional representative, commended the strong representation from 22 countries in the region: from Senegal to Congo and from Benin to Ivory Coast, Guinea Bissau and Niger.

This geographic breadth’, Fall said, ‘should help provoke dynamic discussions on better and more sustainable use of Africa’s livestock breeds and genes and the capacity development programs that underpin this.

Training has long been a central element in the capacity development approaches ILRI and SLU have taken to strengthen Africa’s use of animal genetic resources; indeed, for many partners and donor organizations, Fall said, this training has been a hallmark of the project’s achievements over the past decade. But Fall highlighted that capacity development work in CGIAR/ILRI goes beyond training and transferring knowledge and skills to individuals, and now embraces work effecting change in organizations, institutions, cultures and sectors.

Fall said capacity development activities can serve sustainable use and appropriate management of the continent’s diminishing livestock genetic resources only if they are embedded within broader policies, strategies and frameworks. ILRI takes a systems approach to capacity development, he said, which addresses up front institutional and organizational shortcomings and regulatory and cultural barriers to sustainable development.

Progress in this kind of capacity development work is measured at the following three levels:
Environment: The policies, rules, legislation, regulations, power relations and social norms that help bring about an enabling or disabling environment for sustainable development;
Organization: The internal policies, arrangements, procedures and frameworks that enable or disable an organization to deliver on its mandate and individuals to work together to achieve common goals
Individual: The skills, experience, knowledge and motivation of people.

Taking such a systems perspective, Fall explained, requires finding the right balance between, on the one hand, responding to expressed demand for agricultural research-based knowledge and interventions, and, on the other, jumping on emerging opportunities and innovations with potential for accelerating agricultural development.

This workshop should help AU-IBAR increase its animal genetics work through a 5-year project funded by the European Union and through strengthened collaboration with FAO in this area. Outcomes of the 4-day Burkina Faso workshop — including lessons learned from the past, a prioritized list of new topics/problems for new MSc and PhD students to take on, a list of key messages, and action plans for animal genetic resources work in Western Africa — will help lay the foundations of the West African Platform on Animal Genetic Resources.

More information on ILRI’s contribution to capacity development for animal genetic resource work can be found here: http://mahider.ilri.org/handle/10568/16393 and here http://agtr.ilri.cgiar.org

About ILRI
ILRI is one of 15 CGIAR research centres and 16 multi-centre research programs located around the world and dedicated to reducing poverty and improving food security, health and nutrition, and natural resource management. Like other CGIAR centres, ILRI leads, co-leads or supports cutting-edge research on sustainable agriculture and designs, conducts and monitors in-country research-for-development programs and projects with the aim of producing international public goods at scales that make significant difference in the lives of the world’s poorest populations. ILRI does this work in collaboration with many public and private partners, which combine upstream ‘solution-driven’ research with downstream adaptive science, often in high-potential livestock value chains engaging small- and medium-sized agri-businesses and suppliers. In this work, ILRI and its partners are explicitly supporting work to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals and their successor (now being formulated), the Sustainable Development Goals.

ILRI envisions a world where all people have access to enough food and livelihood options to fulfill their potential. ILRI’s mission is to improve food and nutritional security and to reduce poverty in developing countries through research for efficient, safe and sustainable use of livestock, ‘ensuring better lives through livestock’.

Diana Brandes-van Dorresteijn is a staff member in ILRI’s Capacity Development Unit.

 

ILRI geneticist wins prestigious ‘BREAD Ideas Challenge’ award for innovative way to improve livestock breeding services in poor countries

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) visit to project sites, June 2011

Fidalis Mujibi, a geneticist at ILRI, collecting information from a smallholder livestock farmer in Busia, Kenya. Mujibi is one of the winners of the 2013 ‘BREAD Ideas Challenge’ award for an idea to improve livestock breeding services (photo credit: BMGF/Lee Klejtnot).

Fidalis Mujibi, a Kenyan geneticist working with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, is one of the winners of the 2013 USD10,000 ‘BREAD Ideas Challenge’, announced in July.

The award is given each year by the American National Science Foundation and is part of the ‘Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development (BREAD) program, which is co-funded by the National Science Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This year, the award recognized 13 innovators amongst many applicants ranging from scientists, professors and graduate students from around the world. The winning challenges focused on ideas of solving pressing and largely ignored issues affecting smallholder farming in developing countries.

Mujibi received the award together with American scientist and beef reproductive management specialist George Perry, from South Dakota State University. Their idea is to eliminate the need for liquid nitrogen in livestock artificial insemination services in developing countries.

Liquid nitrogen is needed to preserve the semen used to inseminate dairy cows artificially, but it’s expensive and raises the costs of artificial insemination services for poor farmers in developing countries. Most of those providing artificial insemination services are unable to maintain a steady supply of liquid nitrogen in their tanks, leading to cases of dead semen being used for insemination. This in turn necessitates many repeated insemination procedures, which not only are unduly expensive but also result in long calving intervals, reducing the lifetime productivity of cows.

‘Our idea focuses on alternatives that could eliminate the “cold-chain” from the artificial insemination delivery process’, says Mujibi. ‘We’re exploring ways of delivering semen to remote villages in Africa where there is no infrastructure to support liquid nitrogen systems, so that farmers can access the germplasm they need easily.’

‘I want to explore new ways of helping Africa’s smallholder farmers to improve their livestock production through new germplasm delivery and novel reproductive tools. This will help them better cope with pressures from climate change and reduced farmland,’ says Mujibi.

Mujibi and Perry are preparing a full proposal they will submit to the American National Science Foundation in September.

‘The BREAD challenges range from the global to the local and across diverse disciplines’, said John Wingfield, assistant director for biological sciences at the National Science Foundation. ‘What they have in common is that they represent topics that have not had the attention or funding to prompt a solution. Solving any of these challenges would have a dramatic impact on the lives of millions of smallholder farmers around the globe.’

Read more information about the BREAD award:

http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=128546&org=NSF&from=news

Find out more about ILRI’s work in livestock genetics

http://www.ilri.org/ilrinews/index.php/archives/tag/dairy-genetics-east-africa-project

http://www.ilri.org/node/598

 

In search of ‘the wild chicken’: ILRI and other geneticists unravel the past to help secure the future

Susan von Struensee, Art and Agriculture Series - poultry

ILRI and other geneticists are closing in on ‘the wild chicken’ that became the world’s favoured barnyard (all illustrations on this page on Flickr by Susan von Struensee, Art and Agriculture Series using Tagxedo).

The journal Science reports that ‘Researchers are melding genetics and archaeology to close in on the origin of the world’s most common bird—and potentially help protect a major source of animal protein.’

The article quotes Olivier Hanotte, a livestock geneticist now at the University of Nottingham who formerly spent 13 years at the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) helping to unravel the origins of a second domestication of cattle, in Africa. And it was in Nairobi that Hanotte first got interested in chickens. (Watch the 3.5-minute ILRI Film Chickens: The world’s most numerous livestock.)

‘. . . A key thrust of research in the past decade has been to track the genetic changes that turned a remarkably shy creature into today’s meat-and-eggs dynamo, with an eye to protecting and improving breeds. But this research has also given scientists the opportunity to unravel a long-standing mystery that fascinated Charles Darwin: Where, when, and how was the chicken domesticated? . . .

‘Researchers agree that the red jungle fowl gave rise to the barnyard chicken somewhere in South Asia. But they agree on little else. . . .

‘Identifying the chicken’s wild cousins and preserving their genetic diversity may one day prove critical for improving the stock, some researchers say. Genes from wild birds may help breed birds resistant to avian influenza and other illnesses, for example.

‘The red jungle fowl—Gallus gallus—ranges from the western foothills of the Himalaya Mountains to the tip of Sumatra. . . . . Unlike modern-day chickens, all roosters sport elaborate plumage, the females lack a comb, and both genders have thin, dark legs and can fly considerable distances. The fowl is also generally half the size of a White Leghorn domesticated chicken, but it can produce fertile offspring with domestic chickens.

Susan von Struensee, Art and Agriculture Series - poultry

‘Humans carried the easily portable bird around the world. How this began remains controversial. . . .

‘“We need to reconcile all the data,” says Olivier Hanotte, a geneticist at the University of Nottingham. He favors a single origin in northern Southeast Asia, based on the enormous diversity of chicken breeds there. . . .

‘Ultimately, researchers hope to get ancient DNA from well-dated bones. But “replicable DNA has been as rare as hen’s teeth,” Zeder says, thanks to contamination issues and tropical climes that degrade DNA. One team recently claimed to have mtDNA from an ancient Polynesian chicken bone in Chile—a dramatic find that would prove Polynesians reached the Americas before Columbus—but the find has been questioned as possibly contaminated (Science, 11 June 2010, p. 1344). Techniques are improving, however. . . .

[T]he genetic information in truly wild fowl could kill two birds with one stone, unraveling the chicken’s past while potentially ensuring its future. . . .

Susan von Struensee, Art and Agriculture Series - poultry

‘On a tidy farm in the mountains of northwest Vietnam, Chinese biologist Jianlin Han expertly grabs a nervous red jungle fowl recently captured in this region’s quickly disappearing forest. The bird—which sports a long and dangerously sharp spur—is part of Han’s hands-on effort to breed better animals to benefit the rural poor, while at the same time gathering a massive data set to understand the genetic underpinnings of the domestic chicken. Han, who grew up raising chickens in rural China, is as comfortable in the lab as in the barnyard. . . .

‘The chicken, which grows quickly and is the most intensely bred of domestic animals, provides an intriguing model for understanding those issues, says Han, who works for the International Livestock Research Institute based in Nairobi but spends most of his time in his Beijing lab and in the field across South Asia. . . . The goal is to produce a domes-ticated chicken that caters to local tastes while providing more meat and eggs. Han is also investigating the unusually high number of local varieties found in surrounding villages—many more than elsewhere in South Asia—which may be a hint that the chicken was originally domesticated in this rugged area. Han has an ambitious plan to catalog the genetic makeup of today’s jungle fowl, charting its diversity in different regions and also revealing whether it includes genes from domestic chickens. . . .

‘“Jianlin’s brute-force approach definitely has its merits,” says archaeologist Greger Larson of Durham University in the United Kingdom. “I suspect we can’t possibly know what all the variation is out there unless you go and sequence a ton of stuff.” Geneticist Olivier Hanotte of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom agrees . . . .

‘Han is also curious about what happens when chickens go feral. Natural selection reasserts itself when humans no longer make breeding deci-sions or provide regular food and protection. “This will help us understand how the genome works, and how plastic it is,” Han says. “This is the most fundamental biological question.” The lowly chicken may one day provide humans with more than just a cheap joke or a fast meal.’

Read the whole articles in Science: In search of the wild chicken and the accompanying feature article on Han Jianlin, From farmyard to the lab (News Focus, Animal Domestication), both by Andrew Lawler, 23 November 2012: 1020–1024.

Read related earlier articles on this blog: Research paper casts doubt on claims for pre-Colombian Chilean chickens, 13 Oct 2008, and Award-winning ILRI geneticist takes up prestigious UK appointment, 17 Dec 2008.

Cattle pneumonia pathogen arose with domestication of ruminants ten thousand years ago, researchers say

In this short (3:45 min) video interview, Joerg Jores, a molecular biologist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), shares new insights from his research on contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, a killer livestock disease endemic in Africa.

Jores describes a recent study by researchers from ILRI, the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology and partners in Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA that evaluated the history and relationships of pathogens that cause both cattle (contagious bovine pleuropneumonia) and goat (contagious caprine pleuropneumonia) pneumonia.

The study, ‘The origin of the “Mycoplasma mycoides cluster” coincides with domestication of ruminants,’ was published in the April 2012 edition of the Public Library of Science (PLoS, 27 Apr 2012). The researchers found that the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides, which causes contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, arose at the same time as humans first started to domesticate wild ruminants.

The onset of domestication of livestock about 10,000 years ago, which established large ruminant populations and the herding of mixed species, is thought to have contributed to creating the conditions favouring the spread and diversification of the pathogens by allowing them to adapt to different hosts.

Contagious bovine pleuropneumonia can kill up to 80 per cent of animals in infected herds, and the surviving animals often carry the disease for long periods and can introduce it to uninfected herds.

‘This research was the largest comparative study of Mycoplasma mycoides cluster to date,’ says Jores. ‘Our findings are shedding light into the history of contagious bovine pleuropneumonia and this new knowledge is expected to guide future research into the disease.’

Read a related ILRI clippings article on the paper: Lethal family tree: ILRI research shows livestock bacterium is as old as the livestock it kills.

Download the paper: The origin of the Mycoplasma mycoides cluster coincides with domestication of ruminants, by Anne Fischer (ICIPE and ILRI), Beth Shapiro (Pennsylvania State University), Cecilia Muriuki (ILRI), Martin Heller (Friedrich-Loeffler-Institute), Christiane Schnee (Friedrich-Loeffler-Institute), Erik Bongcam-Rudloff (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences), Joachim Frey (University of Bern) and Joerg Jores (ILRI), 2012, PLoS ONE 7(4): e36150.

 

Frontline livestock disease research in, and for, Africa highlighted in White House conversation today

Scientists at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) are working with many partners to improve control of major diseases of cattle in Africa.

East Coast fever in African cattle, one of the target diseases of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), is included in a message today at the White House delivered by Raj Shah, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development. Shah will remind his audience that East Coast fever kills one cow every 30 seconds in Africa. Watch the live stream and join the conversation at 11am ET at the White House today, when Shah and others will answer questions about Innovations for Global Development.

Two other target diseases of ILRI’s are contagious bovine pleuropneumonia and trypanosomosis. All three diseases affect millions of the world’s poorest farmers. And all remain underfunded because they occur mostly in developing regions of the world.

ILRI recently produced three short films on research battles against these diseases.

CBPP: A new vaccine project starts
Contagious bovine pleuropneumonia (known by its acronym, CBPP) is found throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, where it causes most harm in pastoralist areas. The disease kills up to 15% of infected animals, reduces the meat and milk yields of infected cows (milk yields drop by up to 90%), and reduces the ability of infected oxen to pull ploughs and do other kinds of farm work. An existing ‘live’ vaccine against this disease produces severe side effects and gives only limited protection.

Watch this short (runtime: 2:35) ILRI film, ‘Developing a Vaccine for a Highly Contagious Cattle Disease’, on the research recently begun at ILRI and its partner institutes, including the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, to develop a more effective vaccine against this form of acute cattle pneumonia. This research is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

Trypanosomosis: A genetic approach to its control
Trypanosomosis, called sleeping sickness in humans, is a wasting disease that maims and eventually kills millions of cattle in Africa and costs farmers billions of dollars annually.

In 2011, using the latest gene mapping and genomic technologies, researchers at ILRI’s Nairobi, Kenya, animal health laboratories and at institutes in the UK and Ireland identified two genes that enable Africa’s ancient N’Dama cattle breed to resist development of the disease when infected with the causative, trypanosome, parasite.

This breakthrough should eventually make it easier for Africa’s livestock breeders to breed animals that will remain healthy and productive in areas infested by the parasite-carrying tsetse fly. The international team that came together in this project is an example of the disciplinary breadth and agility needed to do frontline biology today, and the complex research approaches and technologies now needed to unravel fundamental biological issues so as to benefit world’s poor.

ILRI’s collaborating institutes in this work include Liverpool University; the Roslin Institute and Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh; Trinity College, Dublin; and the University of Manchester. The Wellcome Trust funded the bulk of the work in this project.

Watch this short (runtime: 5:28) ILRI film, ‘Battling a Killer Cattle Disease’, on the international partnership that made this breakthrough in trypanosomosis research.

 

Trypanosomosis: A community-based approach to its control
Another ILRI research team has been working with partners and livestock keepers in West Africa to develop safer ways to treat their cattle with drugs to protect them from trypanosomosis. Parasite resistance to the trypanocidal drugs used to treat and prevent this disease has emerged in many areas and is a growing problem for farmers and governments alike. This collaborative research team recently developed good practices in the use of trypanocides to slow the emergence of drug resistance in the parasites that cause the disease. This film describes the disease and these practices, known as ‘rational drug use’, clearly and in detail to help veterinary workers and farmers treat animals safely.

ILRI’s partners in this project include the Centre International de Recherche-Développement sur l’Elevage en Zone Subhumid, Freie Universität Berlin, Laboratoire Vétérinaire Centrale du Mali, Centre Régional de la Recherche Agricole Sikasso, Project de Lutte contra la Mouche Tsétsé et la Trypanosomose (Mali), Pan-African Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Eradication Campaign (Mali), University of Hannover, Direction Nationale de l’Elevage et l’Institut de Recherche Agronomique de Guinée, Tsetse and Trypanosomosis Control Unit (Ghana), Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique du Bénin and the Nigerian Institute of Trypanosomiasis Research. The project was funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

Watch this ILRI film, ‘Community-Based Integrated Control of Trypanosomosis in Cattle’ (runtime: 12.48), for clear instructions on how to deploy drugs to better control trypanosomosis over the long term.

Livestock under threat: Managing the future of native West African ruminant livestock

There is more livestock diversity in Africa than on any other continent. Some indigenous breeds of cattle, goats and sheep are disease resistant, and others can withstand feed and water shortages. But most are less productive than some imported breeds and so do not meet farmers’ needs.

Millions of poor livestock keepers are importing animals, or cross-breeding their local animals with imported breeds to get more productive livestock. But imported breeds need expensive care because they are much less hardy, and animal deaths are increasing. There is a danger that many of Africa’s indigenous livestock breeds will disappear, just as climate changes and population growth are making their hardy traits increasingly important for food security across the region.

This film tells the story of an unusual research and development project working to increase understanding of a disease-resistant cattle breed of West Africa along with what is needed to improve the marketing and processing of their products. This information will then be combined with better feeding and breeding schemes, farmer training and policy changes to make indigenous animals more profitable for poor farmers, so that the important genetic traits of these native breeds are not lost forever.

Watch a new 15-minute film produced by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI): Livestock under threat: Managing the future of native West African ruminant livestock, 29 Jun 2011.

Short film illustrates expanded, agile partnerships behind recent disease research breakthrough

This short (5-minute) film, ‘Battling a Killer Cattle Disease’, produced by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), provides background and context for a recent research breakthrough made at ILRI’s animal health laboratories in Nairobi, Kenya, and at their partner institutions in the UK and Ireland. The research was funded over 7 years in large part by the Wellcome Trust in addition to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Trypanosomosis is a wasting disease of livestock that maims and eventually kills millions of cattle in Africa and costs the continent billions of dollars annually.

In 2011, a group of geneticists at these collaborating institutions identified two genes that enable Africa’s ancient N’Dama cattle breed to resist development of the disease trypanosomosis when infected with the causative, trypanosome, parasite.

The team members were able to make use of the latest gene mapping and genomic technologies because they had the genetic systems and experimental populations of livestock in place to do so as these technologies came on stream.

Eventually, these results should make it easier for livestock breeders in Africa to breed animals that will remain healthy and productive in areas infested by the disease-carrying tsetse fly.

The international team that came together in this project is an example of the disciplinary breadth as well as agility needed to do frontline biology today. In this work, the team developed several new research approaches and technologies that were needed to unravel some fundamental biological issues, with likely benefits for many African farmers and herders.

Those interviewed in the film include Harry Noyes, at the University of Liverpool; Alan Archibald, at the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh; Andy Brass, at the University of Manchester; and Steve Kemp and Morris Agaba, at ILRI.

Scientists identify livestock genes to unlock protection against one of Africa’s oldest animal plagues

Cow suffering from trypanosomosis

Cow suffering from trypanosomiasis (photo credit: ILRI/Elsworth).

An international research team using a new combination of approaches has found two genes that may prove of vital importance to the lives and livelihoods of millions of farmers in a tsetse fly-plagued swathe of Africa the size of the United States. The team’s results were published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The research, aimed at finding the biological keys to protection from a single-celled trypanosome parasite that causes both African sleeping sickness in people and a wasting disease in cattle, brought together a range of high-tech tools and field observations to address a critical affliction of some of the world’s poorest people.

With increased surveillance and control, sleeping sickness infections in people have dropped ten-fold in the last 13 years, from an estimated 300,000 cases a year in 1998 to some 30,000 in 2009, with the disease eventually killing more than half of those infected. Although best known for causing human sleeping sickness, the trypanosome parasite’s most devastating blow to human welfare comes in an animal form, with sick, unproductive cattle costing mixed crop-livestock farmers and livestock herders huge losses and opportunities. The annual economic impact of ‘nagana,’ a common name in Africa for the form of the disease that affects cattle (officially known as African animal trypanosomiasis), has been estimated at US$4–5 billion.

In a vast tsetse belt across Africa, stretching from Senegal on the west coast to Tanzania on the east coast, and from Chad in the north to Zimbabwe in the south, the disease each year renders millions of cattle too weak to plow land or to haul loads, and too sickly to give milk or to breed, before finally killing off most of those infected. This means that in much of Africa, where tractors and commercial fertilizers are scarce and prohibitively expensive, cattle are largely unavailable for tilling and fertilizing croplands or for producing milk and meat for families. The tsetse fly and the disease it transmits are thus responsible for millions of farmers having to till their croplands by hand rather than by animal-drawn plow.

‘The two genes discovered in this research could provide a way for cattle breeders to identify the animals that are best at resisting disease when infected with trypanosome parasites, which are transmitted to animals and people by the bite of infected tsetse flies,’ said senior author Steve Kemp, a geneticist on joint appointment with the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the University of Liverpool.

This genetics of disease resistance research was led by scientists from ILRI in Africa and from the UK universities of Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh, and involved researchers from other institutions in Britain, Ireland and South Korea.

The researchers drew on the fact that while the humped cattle breeds characteristic of much of Africa are susceptible to disease-causing trypanosome parasites, a humpless West African breed, called the N’Dama, is not seriously affected by the disease. Having been domesticated in Africa some 8,000 or more years ago, this most ancient of African breeds has had time to evolve resistance to the parasites. This makes the N’Dama a valued animal in Africa’s endemic regions. On the other hand, N’Dama cattle tend to be smaller, to produce less milk, and to be less docile than their bigger, humped cousins.

African agriculturalists of all kinds would like to see the N’Dama’s inherent disease resistance transferred to these other more productive breeds, but this is difficult without precise knowledge of the genes responsible for disease resistance in the N’Dama. Finding these genes has been the ‘Holy Grail’ of a group of international livestock geneticists for more than two decades, but the genetic and other biological pathways that control bovine disease resistance are complex and have proven difficult to determine.

The PNAS paper is thus a landmark piece of research in this field. The international and inter-institutional team that made this breakthrough did so by combining a range of genetic approaches, which until now have largely been used separately.

‘This may be the first example of scientists bringing together different ways of getting to the bottom of the genetics of a very complex trait,’ said Kemp. ‘Combined, the data were like a Venn diagram overlaying different sets of evidence. It was the overlap that interested us.’

They used these genetic approaches to distinguish differences between the ‘trypano-tolerant’ (humpless) N’Dama, which come from West Africa, and ‘trypano-susceptible’ (humped) Boran cattle, which come from Kenya, in East Africa. The scientists first identified the broad regions of their genomes controlling their different responses to infection with trypanosome parasites, but this was insufficient to identify the specific genes controlling resistance to the disease. So the scientists began adding layers of information obtained from other approaches. They sequenced genes from these regions to look for differences in those sequences between the two breeds.

The team at Edinburgh conducted gene expression analyses to investigate any differences in genetic activity in the tissues of the two cattle breeds after sets of animals of both breeds were experimentally infected with the parasites. Then, the ILRI group tested selected genes in the lab. Finally, they looked at the genetics of cattle populations from all over Africa.

Analyzing the vast datasets created in this research presented significant computational challenges. Andy Brass and his team in the School of Computer Science at the University of Manchester managed to capture, integrate and analyze the highly complex set of biological data by using workflow software called ‘Taverna,’ which was developed as part of a UK e-Science initiative by Manchester computer scientist Carole Goble and her ‘myGrid’ team.

‘The Taverna workflows we developed are capable of analyzing huge amounts of biological data quickly and accurately,’ said Brass. ‘Taverna’s infrastructure enabled us to develop the systematic analysis pipelines we required and to rapidly evolve the analysis as new data came into the project. We’re sharing these workflows so they can be re-used by other researchers looking at different disease models. This breakthrough demonstrates the real-life benefits of computer science and how a problem costing many lives can be tackled using pioneering E-Science systems.’

To bolster the findings, population geneticists from ILRI and the University of Dublin examined bovine genetic sequences for clues about the history of the different breeds. Their evidence confirmed that the two genes identified by the ILRI-Liverpool-Manchester groups were likely to have evolved in response to the presence of trypanosome parasites.

‘We believe the reason the N’Dama do not fall sick when infected with trypanosome parasites is that these animals, unlike others, have evolved ways to control the infection without mounting a runaway immune response that ends up damaging them,’ said lead author Harry Noyes, of the University of Liverpool. ‘Many human infections trigger similarly self-destructive immune responses, and our observations may point to ways of reducing such damage in people as well as livestock.’

This paper, said Kemp, in addition to advancing our understanding of the cascade of genes that allow Africa’s N’Dama cattle to fight animal trypanosomiasis, reaffirms the importance of maintaining as many of Africa’s indigenous animal breeds (as well as plant/crop varieties) as possible. The N’Dama’s disease resistance to trypanosome parasites is an example of a genetic trait that, while not yet fully understood, is clearly of vital importance to the continent’s future food security. But the continued existence of the N’Dama, like that of other native ‘niche’ African livestock breeds, remains under threat.

With this new knowledge of the genes controlling resistance to trypanosomiasis in the N’Dama, breeders could screen African cattle to identify animals with relatively high levels of disease resistance and furthermore incorporate the genetic markers for disease resistance with markers for other important traits, such as high productivity and drought tolerance, for improved breeding programs generally.

If further research confirms the significance of these genes in disease resistance, a conventional breeding program could develop a small breeding herd of disease-resistant cattle in 10–15 years, which could then be used over the next several decades to populate Africa’s different regions with animals most suited to those regions. Using genetic engineering techniques to achieve the same disease-resistant breeding herd, an approach still in its early days, could perhaps be done in four or five years, Kemp said. Once again, it would be several decades before such disease-resistant animals could be made available to most smallholder farmers and herders on the continent.

‘So it’s time we got started,’ said Kemp.

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See this news and related background material at ILRI’s online press room.

The International Livestock Research Institute (www.ilri.org) works with partners worldwide to help poor people keep their farm animals alive and productive, increase and sustain their livestock and farm productivity, and find profitable markets for their animal products. ILRI’s headquarters are in Nairobi, Kenya; we have a principal campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and 13 offices in other regions of Africa and Asia. ILRI is part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (www.cgiar.org), which works to reduce hunger, poverty, illness and environmental degradation in developing countries by generating and sharing relevant agricultural knowledge, technologies and policies. This research is focused on development, conducted by a Consortium (http://consortium.cgiar.org) of 15 CGIAR centres working with hundreds of partners worldwide, and supported by a multi-donor Fund (www.cgiarfund.org).

The University of Liverpool (www.liv.ac.uk) is a member of the Russell Group of leading research-intensive institutions in the UK. It attracts collaborative and contract research commissions from a wide range of national and international organizations valued at more than £110 million annually.

The University of Manchester (www.manchester.ac.uk), also a member of the Russell Group, is the largest single-site university in the UK. It has 22 academic schools and hundreds of specialist research groups undertaking pioneering multi-disciplinary teaching and research of worldwide significance. According to the results of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, the University of Manchester is now one of the country’s major research universities, rated third in the UK in terms of ‘research power’. The university has an annual income of £684 million and attracted £253 million in external research funding in 2007/08.

ILRI genebank manager elected ‘Fellow’ of the prestigious Society of Biology

Alexandra Jorge ILRI genebank manager

Alexandra Jorge, the genebank manager at the Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, campus of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), is one of four Africa-based scientists elected, this past December, to join the Society of Biology, a leading professional body that represents individuals committed to biology from academia, industry, education and research.

With over 80,000 members, the Society of Biology promotes advances in biological science across the world and awards fellowships to individuals who make ‘contribution to the advancement of biological sciences, and who have over five years experience in positions of senior responsibility’. The society is a particular supporter of work done by scientists in developing countries.

Jorge, a plant physiologist, works under the People, Livestock and Environment theme at ILRI, where she is managing the study, documentation and conservation of forage seeds in a forage genebank located at ILRI’s campus in Addis Ababa. The genebank, together with Ethiopian field sites in Soddo, Ziway and Debre Zeit, contains over 20,000 types of tropical grasses, legumes and tree forages, which are routinely tested to ensure they remain healthy and viable for use in farms.

‘To be invited to become a Fellow of the Society of Biology is a great honour to any scientist and I am very proud of this achievement,’ says Jorge, ‘I thank the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) program for nominating me for this fellowship and I look forward to working with the large network of scientists in the Society.’

Other Fellows elected to the Society of Biology in December 2010 are Stella Asuming-Brempong, Waceke Wanjohi and Sheila Okoth. These four women are also fellows of AWARD, a Gender and Diversity Program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

For African women scientists, such recognition is significant.

‘It can be a struggle for scientists from the developing world to network successfully and maximize the benefits of international collaboration due to geographical and financial reasons,’ said Vicki Wilde, director of the Gender and Diversity Program and AWARD, ‘These scientist’s voices—and the unheard voices of millions of farmers, particularly women, in sub-Saharan Africa—will now be heard and their work taken seriously.’

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For more information see the following article: http://www.societyofbiology.org/newsandevents/news/view/210

Read about ILRI’s work in managing forage diversity on http://www.ilri.org/ForageDiversity and http://mahider.ilri.org/handle/10568/228

For more on crop genebanks and forages visit: http://cropgenebank.sgrp.cgiar.org/ and http://www.tropicalforages.info/

New project to help Vietnamese and other farmers conserve their native livestock breeds

Hmong girl hold native black chicken of Viet Nam A native black pig of Viet Nam

Left: A Hmong girl, 13-year-old Hi Hoa Sinh, holds a native black chicken in the village of Lung Pu, northern Viet Nam; Right: One of Viet Nam’s native black pigs on the farm of Ma Thi Puong, near the northern town of Meo Vac (photo credit: ILRI/Mann).

A project funded by the Global Environment Facility has selected Vietnam, a country with a wealth of livestock diversity, as one of four countries in which to implement a project to conserve livestock genotypes.

The diversity is deteriorating due to the popularization of new breeds together with the commercialization of livestock production. To preserve indigenous livestock breeds, the Global Environment Facility and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) have selected 4 countries—Vietnam, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka—to implement the project ‘Developing and applying supporting tools on the conservation and sustainable utilization of the genetic diversity of livestock and their wild relatives.’

Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has made the National Institute of Animal Husbandry as the Vietnamese partner in the project.

The project aims to enhance livestock keepers’ awareness of the importance of the genetic conservation of indigenous livestock while helping them to raise their incomes through adoption of indigenous livestock breeds. The project is being implemented over 4 years (2010–2012) in Vietnam’s Son La and Bac Ninh provinces, with a focus on indigenous chicken and pig breeds. The project will train farmers on survey methods and data collection; on ways to maintain their use of indigenous animals; on livestock management; and on business skills in such areas as as tourism with traditional cuisine and cultural activities.

Basic information about valuable indigenous breeds and representative animals is needed, as is the capacity to prioritize, monitor and manage them at both scientific and farm operational levels. Stakeholder groups need to be empowered with knowledge and conducive operational environments in which they can make decisions that work best for them.

Agriculture in the partner countries in this project contributes 20 to 26% of gross domestic product, of which livestock contributes approximately 15 to 20% in terms of income, insurance, food (meat, milk, eggs), hides/skin, traction and manure. It is mostly smallholder farmers who are dependent on indigenous breeds. These animals have evolved in diverse tropical environments and possess valuable traits such as disease resistance, adaptation to harsh environments, including heat tolerance and ability to utilize poor quality feeds, attributes essential for achieving sustainable agriculture in low-input production systems. However, it is still largely unknown which breeds hold significant genetic diversity or specific genes that should be targeted for conservation and/or incorporation into breeding programs. In the meantime, crossbreeding with exotic breeds is increasing and indigenous breeds are being lost.

The development objectives of this project are to help conserve the indigenous livestock of the partner countries for future generations and to help increase the contribution these native breeds make to the livelihoods of poor people. The first goal of the project is to develop and to make available effective tools to support decision making for the conservation and sustainable use of indigenous farm animals and their wild relatives in developing countries.

For more information, see the project’s description on ILRI’s Biotechnology Theme webpage.

UN highlights project helping Asian countries to conserve their native livestock and wild relatives

Farmer Ma Thi Puong feeds her pigs on her  farm near the northern town of Meo Vac.

The Farm Animal Genetic Resources Project is encouraging wider use of native Asian chicken, goat and pig breeds to help sustain the livelihoods of poor farmers (photo credit: ILRI) 

A Farm Animal Genetic Resources Project conducted by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and other partners to conserve indigenous livestock breeds in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam has been recognized by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) as one of eleven global projects ‘assisting farmers in developing diversified and resilient agricultural systems to ensure communities and consumers have more predictable supplies of nutritious food.’

The ILRI project is featured in an UNEP booklet launched on Tuesday 19 October 2010 during the tenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, taking place in Nagoya, Japan.

Securing sustainability through conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity: The UNEP-GEF contribution provides lessons from projects about useful tools for conserving and managing agricultural biodiversity over the long term. The report features project partnerships among UNEP, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and national and international organizations conducted over the last 10 years.

The ILRI-led and GEF-funded US$6.4-million Farm Animal Genetic Resources Project was started in 2009 to better conserve local breeds of chickens, goats and pigs that help sustain the livelihoods of poor farmers and the health and well-being of women and children in Asia.

As much as 10 per cent of the world’s livestock breeds have disappeared in the last six years, due mostly to substitution or cross-breeding of local indigenous animals with exotic commercial breeds. Most of the extant indigenous livestock breeds today are found in pastoral herds and on small farms in developing countries. Understudied and insufficiently documented, many of the strengths and potential benefits of these tropical local breeds remain untapped.

The Farm Animal Genetic Resource Project works to encourage wider use of local breeds, such as the Bengal goat in Bangladesh. Each of the four countries where the project is implemented has a long history of use of indigenous livestock and a rich diversity of animals, including the wild relatives of domestic livestock, which provide additional genetic resources for breeding programs to improve domestic animals.

ILRI’s project partners include the Bangladesh Agricultural University; the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council; the University of Peradeniya, in Sri Lanka; and the Vietnamese National Institute of Animal Husbandry, with more organizations expected to join the project later. By the time the project is completed, in 2014, these partners aim to have developed breeding tools for use in low-input livestock production systems, cost-benefit analysis tools for comparing breeding programs for different indigenous breeds and populations, and analytical frameworks for assessing policy and marketing options for farm animal genetic resources.

So far, with the input of local actors, including farmers, researchers and development agents, the Farm Animal Genetic Resources Project has developed baseline survey tools for assessing animal genetic biodiversity and constraints to its conservation. These tools will also be used to assess marketing opportunities for indigenous animals and the contributions these animals make to rural livelihoods. The project has also developed a flock and herd monitoring tool that helps to measure genetic and phenotypic diversity, to track genetic changes in livestock populations over time, and to capture the relations between indigenous domesticated animals and their wild relatives.

Mohamed Ibrahim, ILRI’s coordinator of this Asia project, says that the project is increasing the capacity of local institutions to collect and analyse data related to indigenous livestock breeds. ‘Our goal,’ says Ibrahim, ‘is to ensure that important chicken, goat and pig breeds in the four targeted Asian countries are protected for the future benefit of local farmers’.

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Read the complete report on the following link: http://www.unep.org/dgef/Portals/43/AgBD_publication_FINAL.pdf

And find out more about the Farm Animal Genetic Resources Project on their website: http://www.fangrasia.org; and partner websites: www.fangrbd.org, www.fangrvn.org

Scientists argue the importance of Africa’s diverse livestock — and the need for genebanks to conserve them

Steve Kemp, a geneticist at the Nairobi laboratories of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) for both ILRI and the University of Liverpool, argues in this short video (2:24 minutes) the new opportunities — as well as urgent need — for exploring the remarkably rich livestock diversity that evolved and still exists on the highly diverse African continent.

‘We need to study the genetics of the animals,’ he says, as well as ‘the farming systems in which they are being used and their production characteristics. And that has never been done systematically in situ across this extraordinary diversity of African livestock.’ Kemp describes fast-improving technologies in the ‘new genetics’ — technologies that are allowing scientists, for the first time, to attempt these very broad kinds of genetic analyses. And he makes a case for establishing livestock genebanks to help preserve the continent’s livestock diversity, which is rapidly being lost. ‘Unless you move relatively quickly,’ warns Kemp, ‘there’ll be nothing left to study.’ Kemp makes these points in an article published in a June 2010 issue of the international journal Science. The co-authors of the article are Tadelle Dessie, an ILRI livestock breeding specialist based at ILRI’s campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Olivier Hanotte, a geneticist that formerly worked at ILRI and now directs a Frozen Ark initiative at the University of Nottingham, in the UK. Although genebanks are an important ‘stop-gap’ for preserving livestock diversity, says Kemp, his article makes the point that ‘at the same time that you bank, you must understand the characteristics of what you’re preserving.' 'ILRI is well positioned to catalyze this kind of research,’ Kemp says. ‘It has strong links with Africa and with African partners, who have access to the livestock. It has the mix of skills it needs to understand the function of livestock, right across the spectrum from disease resistance to their role in the marketplace. And it also has the technology — the molecular tools and the informatics tools — to allow us to begin this process.’ ‘But ILRI cannot perform any of this analysis alone,’ warns Kemp. ‘It needs to network with partners in the West and across Africa.’

Science: 'Time to tap Africa's livestock genomes', 25 Jun 2010

BBC News: 'African livestock offers untapped genetic resource', 24 Jun 2010