By Prof. Ann Muigai
I always say that Genetics found me because I did not go in search of it. I completed my A levels with the goal of entering the University of Nairobi’s School of Dentistry. Unfortunately, I missed the entry mark by one point and that is how I found myself at Kenyatta University pursuing a Bachelor of Education, Science degree. I then met Dr GDE Njagi, who was a fresh PhD Genetics graduate from Edinburgh University. He opened up the world of Genetics for me and many others who came after me and I never looked back. After graduation, I did a Master of Science in Plant Genetics and later a PhD in Biochemistry (Molecular Biology).
The African BioGenome Project (AfricaBP) was launched in June 2021, although its conceptualization began about 18 months before this date. It is a Pan African project that seeks to sequence 100,000 animals and plants indigenous and endemic to Africa. The 109 scientists involved in AfricaBP come from all regions of Africa and are based in 22 institutions across the continent. The project’s position paper was recently published in Nature where the projects goals are outlined. The first goal is to coordinate the sequencing of all non-human genome sequencing initiatives that are existing and emerging within the continent. The second goal entails initiating, developing and supporting all new non-human genome sequencing efforts. Thirdly, is to deploy the sequencing data to contribute to regional biobanks within the continent.
This is important because Africa has a very rich and diverse range of plants and animal species, many of which are located in areas that have been classified as biodiversity hotspots. A number of these environments are suffering from over exploitation of natural resources which has led to environmental degradation, loss of habitats, species reduction in numbers and their eventual extinction. The project is therefore timely because genomics is one way in which the biodiversity of African plants and animals can be determined, the results of which can help scientists identify the best interventions for preventing further genetic erosion or loss. Additionally, the information generated through sequencing has a direct application in breeding of species that will produce more, and are better adapted to new and emerging climates being experienced due to climate change.
It is envisaged that African scientists will be involved in the collection, sample preparation, sequencing, bioinformatics and storage of the genomic information. This will ensure Africans are directly involved in all these stages. AfricaBP will therefore work to ensure that 80% of all the sequencing efforts are done on the continent and by Africans.
Capacity building is an important component of this project. This has led to establishment of the AfricaBP Open Initiative where early career scientists will be capacitated on latest tools in the fields of genomics and bioinformatics. We envisage that as genomic technologies develop and spread throughout Africa, these young African scientists will secure positions within these institutions and hence continue to work and live on the continent.
AfricaBP is keen to understand the legislative and governance framework established by African Member States with regard to the Nagoya Protocol, Access and Benefit Sharing and Digital Sequence Information and is working very closely with National Focal Points in various African countries. This will ensure that data is freely and fully accessible especially to African scientists who normally experience access barriers.
Prof. Ann Muigai is the Chairperson and Co-Leader, African BioGenome Project.