For more than two decades, I have been working to improve several staple food crops in Africa, including bananas, plantains, cassavas and yams. As principal scientist and a plant biotechnologist at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in Nairobi, I aim to develop varieties that are resistant to pests and diseases such as bacterial wilt, Fusarium wilt (caused by the fungus F. oxysporum) and banana streak virus.
[Editor’s note: Abdullahi Tsanni is a freelance science journalist based in Abuja, Nigeria.]
In 2011, my team and I created a set of tools, the only one of its kind in Africa, for changing DNA sequences so that we could develop genetically modified and genome-edited products in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2018, we pioneered the first application of CRISPR gene-editing technology to deactivate banana streak virus in plantains. This technology overcame a major hurdle in banana breeding on the continent, and is the first reported successful use of genome editing to improve bananas.
Kenya imposed a partial lockdown on 7 April, but I was allowed to continue some crucial laboratory work, and our research is not affected. Since mid-May, my team has been working in shifts. These plants are like our ‘babies’ in the lab — I can’t leave them.
I am excited to see the resultant performance of the bananas in our greenhouse. By next year, we should have some plants ready for trials in the field.