Biosciences East and Central Africa (BecA), Nairobi, Kenya, East Africa

Most of IITA’s molecular and biotechnology work undertaken outside of West Africa takes place in Nairobi, Kenya, at the Biosciences East and Central Africa (BecA) Hub at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). A shared agricultural research and biosciences platform, BecA increases access to world-class laboratories for African and international scientists conducting research on African agricultural challenges. It was established as part of the African Union/New Partnership for Africa’s Development (AU/NEPAD) African Biosciences Initiative (ABI) within the framework of NEPAD’s Centers of Excellence for Science and Technology and the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Program (CAADP), and in alignment with regional priorities set by the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA).

Sharing the Platform for African Agriculture

IITA is hosted at BecA to share in the crop biosciences capacity of the Hub. We partner with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) at BecA. It was endorsed by the Steering Committee of NEPAD to support eastern and central African countries in developing and applying bioscience research and expertise to technology production that helps poor farmers secure their assets, improve their productivity and income, and increase their market opportunities.

BecA provides a focal point for the African scientific community to support the activities of national, regional, and international agencies as they address agricultural problems of the highest priority for alleviating poverty and promoting development.

Impressive amenities

The facilities at BecA include seven research laboratories, focusing on crops, livestock, and microbes. IITA’s major emphasis is on molecular biology research at the Hub. In addition, BecA has the capacity to perform research in immunology, cell culture, diagnostics, parasitology, and microscopy. The Hub also has core service facilities to support the research, including bioinformatics, automated DNA sequencing and genotyping, Real-Time PCR, flow cytometry, a tick-vector laboratory, and a central core unit which provides culture media and buffers, glass-wash, and sterilization services.

As part of an impressive collective of research institutions at BecA, IITA is committed to research projects that deliver products to help improve food and nutritional security in Africa. In this way IITA’s endeavors in eastern and central Africa have greatly benefited from our relationship with BecA.

Bioscience Center, Ibadan, Nigeria, West Africa

The IITA Bioscience Center was established in 1990 at the beginning of the genomic revolution and the advent of DNA technology. Since its launch the Bioscience Center has expanded greatly while keeping abreast of growing scientific technology. As one of the leading biotech laboratories in sub-Saharan Africa, it has been a pioneer in the area of molecular biology and has served as a center of excellence for harnessing technologies for the improvement of African staple crops. The Bioscience Center encompasses a number of different laboratories that deal with a variety of research areas all of which fit under four main objectives: genetic characterization, molecular breeding, plant disease diagnostics, and transgenics.

Bioscience Center Objectives and Themes

The Bioscience Center is concerned with Genetic Characterization. It works to discover desirable traits and use them to describe the germplasm collection of IITA’s genebank, the Genetic Resources Center. This aids in crop improvement research.

Molecular Breeding or Marker Assisted Breeding (MAB) is the process of using the results of DNA tests to assist in the selection of individuals to become the parents in the next generation of a genetic improvement program. The Bioscience Center develops the genomics tools needed to accelerate the development of superior varieties of staple crops.

Determining what causes disease is key to designing appropriate control measures. Diagnostic tools help IITA preempt emerging threats and new plant diseases. The Bioscience Center deals with Plant Disease Diagnostics. It develops user-friendly and affordable tools for faster, more efficient disease diagnosis.

Plant Genetic Engineering or Transgenics, is the introduction and stable integration of desirable genes into the genome of a plant that leads to the production of a healthy transgenic plant. If successful the plant goes through a genetic transformation, which sees normal, fertile plants expressing the newly inserted genes. These new plants then offer a better alternative for the genetic improvement of crops that are not receptive to conventional cross breeding.

With the advent of plant biotechnology and the rapid development of gene transfer techniques, the potential to introduce desirable character traits is no longer restricted to those occurring in close relatives. This is especially helpful when working with banana due to the lack of cross-fertile wild relatives in many banana-producing areas. Banana are highly susceptible to genetic engineering, thanks to the male and female sterility of most edible cultivars and the clonal mode of propagation. Furthermore, gene flow is not an issue for banana, making a transgenic approach even more attractive.

The Bioscience Center offers world-class training in biotechnology that has attracted numerous young scientists from across the continent. It serves as Africa’s gateway to modern technologies and a platform for innovation and discovery.

Facilities include an ultralow temperature specimen storage, cold room, water purification system, sterilization and autoclave systems; ploidy analyzer and microscopy in the cytogenetics center; Applied Biosystems Genetic Analyzer, thermocyclers, quantitative real-time PCR, Genogrinder, gel electrophoresis, and spectrophotometers at the Molecular Biology Lab; conservation rooms and growth chambers at the Plant Tissue Culture and Micropropagation Laboratory.

Molecular Genetics Lab, Yaoundé, Cameroon, Central Africa

The Molecular Genetics Lab began its work in 2012. It conducts research primarily on banana especially the devastating Banana Bunchy Top Virus (BBTV). The lab investigates the causal agents of BBTV as well as its course, and the banana aphid. Key diagnostic activities in the lab include virus detection through the analysis of Banana Bunchy Top Disease survey samples, and using basic PCR for virus diagnosis in leaf and aphid samples for BBTV detection. More routine analysis of leaf samples from banana seed farms and research into aphid diversity and BBTV presence in the aphid is also conducted at the lab. The lab also has the potential to expand to other viruses and insects.

The Molecular Genetics Lab hosted a partner from the Central African Republic in January 2014, and has trained several students from the US and other Central African countries in collaboration with UCLA. More recently it has trained staff from Gabon and Equatorial Guinea on banana disease diagnostics. The lab will also be used in the Congo Basic Institute project for the study of biodiversity in the Congo basin.