Cassava genome mapping may provide tools to make crop disease resistant, less toxic

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Bill Gates called it the “world’s most interesting vegetable“. It feeds a billion people every day, despite naturally producing poisonous cyanide. But the root vegetable cassava is in genetic strife.

A huge study profiling the genome of cassava varieties worldwide, including Asia, Oceania, Africa and its native South America where it’s a staple crop, found some areas lack genetic diversity, and are prone to be wiped out by a single disease or pest.

But the same work, led by University of California, Berkeley geneticist Jessen Bredeson and published in Nature Biotechnology, also gives agronomists the tools to breed more resistant and less toxic varieties of the crop.

Despite it being the fifth most important crop in the world. . .there’s been little research into its genetics, says Ros Gleadow from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia . . . This is mainly because it’s considered “a poor man’s crop”.

“Also, it’s grown from cuttings,” she says. “It’s not like you can sell people seed every year. You could sell it once, then everyone will have it next year.”

Crops with low genetic diversity . . . can’t adapt to pressures such as pests. . . .

And mapping loads of different cassava genomes allows agronomists to pick and choose different varieties to broaden a crop’s gene pool, and avoid the looming threat of mass crop death.

. . . . Cassava produces cyanide as a natural pesticide. These levels are reduced through cooking and processing, but in times of drought, cyanide production surges. . . .

“We know the genes that control this production of cyanide . . .” Gleadow says.

“Now we have some extra genetic tools to overcome it and make the crop safer.”

Read full, original post: Cassava’s genetic map hints at cyanide secrets

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