The University of Cape Coast has begun research work to produce Ghana’s first gene-edited crop with increased Vitamin A content whiles trying to improve traits in sweet potatoes.
A PhD candidate, Mr. Samuel Acheampong, of the university’s Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology has over the last year been working to increase beta carotene (which is a precursor of Vitamin A) content in sweet potato using CRISPR gene-editing technology.
The plant breeder explained that CRISPR gene-editing is a technique for modifying the genetic materials of living organisms using an enzyme called Cas9 from bacteria. It is a potential technology for food production and future food security. He noted that gene editing is considered a superior technology to genetically modified organism (GMO) technology because it does not introduce genes from other living organisms into the target crop.
“One thing about gene editing is, it’s a one-time event. Once you introduce the Cas9 (into the genetic material of a targeted organism), the Cas9 cuts the DNA.
“Now, when that cut is made, the organism will repair. And once the repair is done, that is all. Cas9 is just an enzyme, within few minutes or hours, it is degraded and there is no trace of it in the organism again.”
Mr. Samuel Acheampong mentioned that his work entails increasing the beta carotene content in sweet potatoes by using CRISPR-Cas9 to knock out the genes responsible for the production of an enzyme in the sweet potato that converts beta carotene into other products.
“The other aspect of my work, I’m looking at how to increase the size of the storage roots, and I’m looking at a set of genes which affects the transport of sugars in plants.
“So, I’m trying to use the CRISPR genome editing to knock out some set of genes, so that there will be more flow of sugars in the crop which will definitely lead to increase in the yield.”Mr. Samuel Acheampong, Plant Breeder
Being the first research work using the CRISPR technology in Ghana, Mr. Samuel Acheampong is convinced that once successful, the technology can be used to solve several other agricultural production challenges in the country and Africa as a whole. He stated that once successful, it is going to be very big for the scientific community and those who are interested in food production, estimating that it will take him up to 5 years to complete his research work.
“In Ghana, we have a big problem with iron deficiency, anaemia. In the food we eat, the iron content is low, and we can use gene editing to increase the iron content. There are many other traits that we can use gene editing to do (improve),” he explained.
“In the US, they have used it, they have been successful in many plants. For Ghana and West Africa, we are now also doing it. You see, when technology comes, you have to adapt it to your own situation and use it to your advantage. So, I believe that when this one goes up, it will encourage other scientists to also pursue studies related to the CRISPR-Cas9 system.”Mr. Samuel Acheampong, Plant Breeder
The plant breeder, therefore, urged African governments to invest in gene editing technologies.
“Governments across Africa should embrace genome editing to improve traits in your crops because when government sponsors a project, a project becomes successful and is given out to the people, I believe people will be more confident in it further than allowing biotech companies to develop it and then sell it to farmers. It will be affordable; everybody can have easy access to it and use it.”