Sorghum is the second most important staple cereal on the continent with over 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) relying on it for their dietary needs. Its production has been declining exponentially due to infestation by Striga, a notorious weed that attaches itself to the cereal crop, devouring it and eventually killing the crop. Striga’s infestation on Africa’s most valued tradition cereal, sorghum, has exacerbated food insecurity for close to half of SSA’s population.

Under Feed the Future Striga Smart Sorghum for Africa (SSSfA) project, a multidisciplinary team of African scientists are seeking to eradicate this parasitic weed using new breeding innovations to complement conventional control methods. Among them is crop biotechnologist Prof. Teklehaimanot Haileselassie from Ethiopia. In an exclusive interview with the DrumBeat, Prof. Haileselassie shares his science story and talks about the SSSfA project.

  • Who is Prof. Teklehaimanot Haileselassie? 

I am a senior researcher at the Institute of Biotechnology in Addis Ababa University. I conduct research and teach crop biotechnology and biosafety courses at the university. I also offer community services.

  • Explain your personal journey into the science of crop biotechnology – what motivated you into this field?

I come from a farming community where I grew up helping my parents on the farm. My close interaction with crops inspired my interest in agriculture. It is against this background that I developed strong passion for a course in agriculture. It became my favourite subject in high school. I applied to join the College of Agriculture upon passing matriculation examination. However, due to high volumes of applications to the college, I was unsuccessful and instead joined the College of Natural Sciences in Addis Ababa University where I studied Biology. The fact that biology goes hand-in-hand with agriculture gave me motivation since I knew I was not far off my favourite area. At Masters level, I studied Botanical Sciences. 

I got into the biotechnology space when I secured an opportunity to study for my PhD in Sweden courtesy of sponsorship by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). This was through a program called the East African Regional Program and Research Network for Biotechnology, Biosafety and Biotechnology Policy Development (BIO-EARN).

After completing my PhD studies, I came back to Ethiopia. It was during this time that the biotechnology program was commencing in Addis Ababa University. I thereafter joined the Institute of Biotechnology and started researching on crops of interest to the Ethiopian community.

  • You are one of the lead scientists in the Striga Smart Sorghum for Africa project. What is the goal of this project?

The Striga Smart Sorghum for Africa is a public-private partnership project that utilizes genome editing technology to develop new sorghum varieties resistant to Striga, a parasitic weed responsible for up to 100 percent yield loss in cereal crops. It is a three-year project supported through the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future, led by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Lead partners in the project are the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter, Kenyatta University (Kenya), Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia) and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF).

  • How will the project address Ethiopia’s food security challenge?

Sorghum is one of Ethiopia’s staple crops and is a major food security crop in Eastern Africa. Sadly, Striga infestation on this important cereal crop has caused about 50-100 per cent yield loss. In fact, the extent of Striga devastation is palpable as you may mistake Ethiopian sorghum farms with flower farms since the parasitic weed, characterized by colored flowers, has engulfed the farms. By using genome-editing, a more precise and efficient technology, the project team will develop Striga smart sorghum that will enhance sorghum production and improve the food security situation in the country thus improving livelihoods of close to 5 million households.

  • Why use genome editing (CRISPR-Cas9) in addressing Striga problem in Ethiopia?

There have been many efforts to tackle this problem using several methods. Some of these methods date back tens of years. They range from cultural methods such as crop rotation and weeding; chemical application and. conventional breeding. However, these methods have not yielded a lasting solution as Ethiopia is currently reported as one of the most Striga-infested countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Genome editing, a modern biotechnology option, is proving precise and effective in developing varieties resistant to this parasitic weed.

Sorghum usually produces a chemical that stimulates germination of Striga. Once it germinates, the weed attaches itself to the crop (host) roots and by doing so, it weakens the crop plant by drawing its carbon assimilates, nutrients, water and amino acids and injecting a toxin into the crop, killing it within days. Using genome-editing technology, the expression of the gene responsible for production of this chemical is prevented. Therefore, this technology makes sorghum (the host) smart by rendering it ineffective in stimulating seeds of Striga to germinate, thus breaking the weed’s life cycle.

Genome editing has been tried and tested in a number of countries and it has been found to be precise, cost effective and safe.

  • When will the products from the project expected to get to farmers’ hands?

I cannot give a definite time when the varieties will be available on the market, since product development undergoes a number of processes and approvals. Kenyatta University’s Prof. Steven Runo and his team, with support from Corteva Agriscience, have already developed genome-edited sorghum lines that have shown high resistance to Striga. Using knowledge gained from Prof. Runo’s work, the project team will develop Striga-smart varieties using varieties preferred by farmers and industry in both Kenya and Ethiopia that will go through regulatory trials. Thereafter, we will apply for variety registration before the developed varieties are released to farmers. The whole process may take a few years but we are optimistic.

  • Highlight any major challenges, if any, that you have faced in your genome editing research

With genome editing being one of the most recent addition in the toolkit of modern biotechnology, Ethiopia is yet to put in place laboratory infrastructure that supports it wholly. To address this challenge, we are partnering with universities and research institutions in countries whose laboratories have enough capacity for genome-editing research. This has enabled our researchers to conduct advanced experiments in partner labs.

Another challenge is the delayed processing of a regulatory framework for research, development and deployment of genome-edited products. Good enough, all indications show that the framework will soon be in place.

  • What is the place of genome editing in contributing towards attainment of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2063?

SDGs and Agenda 2063 place a premium on science, technology and innovation in ending poverty and hunger and achieving food security and improved nutrition, as well as, promoting health and environmental conservation. Utilization of genome-editing tools in development of climate-resilient crops and livestock can immensely contribute towards achievement of SDGs and Agenda 2063 goals related to food and nutritional security, health, environmental sustainability and improved livelihoods.

  • What is your message to young scientists aspiring to become great scientists like you?

Every young scientist should strive to be counted among key people whose efforts to address Africa’s problems have been felt and appreciated. Upcoming agricultural scientists should aim to cause a positive impact towards a food secure Africa. A vast majority of our African population is dependent on agriculture as a source of food and livelihood. Young scientists should take initiative further to revamp this important sector beyond livelihood to creating competitive enterprises and making it attractive. I encourage them to seek partnerships with senior researchers, development partners and the local private sector to live this dream.

By Prof. Teklehaimanot Haileselassie, crop biotechnologist and senior researcher at the Institute of Biotechnology in Addis Ababa University