Breakthrough research sees first genome sequencing of celebrated African crop

An international research partnership, which DTP student Ben White is involved in, has sequenced the genome of the white Guinea yam for the first time.

Known to millions of people as the “King of the Crops,” the yam is a staple crop with huge economic and cultural significance in Africa.

Teams across the Norwich Research Park are involved in the international collaboration* that led to the sequencing. Deciphering the yam genome is particularly important because, unlike other staple crops such as wheat, maize and rice, it is relatively undomesticated and less researched.

The genome sequence, according to the team behind the research, will help improve the white Guinea yam as a crop, allowing yields to be rapidly increased.

The research has also identified the regions of the genome that determine sex in yams. Yams are unusual among flowering plants in being dioecious – which means they produce a male plant and a female plant. Understanding this characteristic, which occurs in about 5-6% of flowering plants, is vital for improving the speed of breeding projects to improve yields.

Benjamen White, who led the contribution at the Earlham Institute said: Having a reference sequence for the white Guinea yam gives us the unique opportunity to gain a better understanding of dioecy, a very rare trait in flowering plants.

“It will be invaluable in breeding a better yam, that will improve food security in West and Central Africa, and the livelihood of smallholder farmers there.”

Nigeria accounts for around 70% of world yam production.  Amongst the Igbo population , one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, the yam is known as the “King of the Crops.”

The yam even plays a central role in Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s twentieth century classic “Things Fall Apart.”

This research involved researchers from The Earlham Institute and The Sainsbury Laboratory, both based at the Norwich Research Park, alongside colleagues from Germany, Japan and Nigeria.

Prof Sophien Kamoun who led the contribution of The Sainsbury Laboratory said: ” I’m thrilled that our Norwich Research Park team could contribute to this important project and help with the analysis and interpretation of what turned out to be a fascinating plant genome.

“This is an important step forward but we need to use this white Guinea yam genome as a springboard to a broader understanding of yam species genome diversity.”
The paper “Genome sequencing of the staple food crop white Guinea yam enables the development of a molecular marker for sex determination” can be accessed in the journal BMC Biology and the high-quality draft genome sequence is available in the public databases DDBJ and NCBI.

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*The international collaboration featured various institutes throughout the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and Nigeria. In order of authors on the paper: Iwate Biotechnology Research Centre, Kitakami, Japan; The Earlham Institute, Norwich, UK; Kobe University, Kobe, Japan; Okinawa Agricultural Research Centre, Okinawa, Japan; Shinshu University, Nagano, Japan; Tokyo University of Agriculture, Tokyo, Japan; Japan International Research Centre for Agricultural Sciences, Tsukuba, Japan; International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Ibadan, Nigeria; Kyoto Sangyo University, Kyoto, Japan; The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich, UK; University of Frankfurt, Frankfurt, Germany; Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan.