Although Africa is home to the second largest range of biodiversity on Earth, many unique plants, animals, and microbes are facing extinction due to human activities and climate change.
Unfortunately, not much is known about many of these species – a dearth of knowledge that robs the world of innovations and solutions to pressing challenges in food, nutrition and health.
But this is about to change. A group of African scientists – experts in genetics, genomics and bioinformatics – have set an ambitious goal to unlock the secrets of plant and animal diversity across the continent through a unique genome sequencing project.
Rich variety and limited knowledge
The African Genome Project (AfricaBP), launched in 2021, seeks to sequence the genomes of 105,000 plants, animals, endemic fungi and other organisms of economic, scientific and cultural importance.
The project, which currently includes more than 109 African scientists and 22 African organizations, will decode each organism to explore the rich biodiversity of 2,500 indigenous African species, including the blind-beaked Boyle python (Rhynotiflops Boyle(from South Africa and red mangrove tree)Root anomaly) from Nigeria.
Genome sequencing will guide biodiversity conservation across Africa and enhance the continent’s ability to meet the goals of the post-2020 global diversity framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), said Apollinaire Djeking, a genomic scientist and director of the Center for Tropical Animal Genetics. and Health at the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh. He is one of the promoters of AfricaBP.
The need to understand Africa’s rich biodiversity is long overdue, says ThankGod Ebenezer, a bioinformatics expert at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) in the UK who is involved in AfricaBP. So far, he said, the sequencing done by Africans in Africa is very little.
Africa can build capacity and expertise in genome sequencing analysis, as demonstrated by projects such as the Alliance for Human Genetics and Health in Africa (H3Africa), Ebenezer said. However, Africa has been late in determining the sequence of native species in favor of its people.
The genome is the heart of any organism, carrying the codes that dictate its appearance and much of its behaviour, for example. The sequencing allows each organism to be decoded to explore biodiversity.
“The main driver here is the rich biodiversity that we have in Africa, both in the plant community and the animal community and also in the microbes,” said Djecking.
Africa is home to eight of the world’s biodiversity hotspots and the Congo Basin rainforests, which alone account for 10 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Biodiversity hotspots are areas that have been identified as having the most biologically rich place on Earth, according to the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
Climate change will exacerbate the effects of past threats to biodiversity with Africa likely to be one of the hardest hit regions, according to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The project is driven by the urgent need to expand access to and benefit-sharing of biological resources across Africa, Ebenezer said. Various international agencies and conventions are involved in this goal.
The United Nations Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing calls for the fair and equitable sharing of genetic resources, while the new Global Framework for Nature Governance to 2030 sets out the protection of the genetic diversity of wild and domesticated species and the provision of at least 90 percent of their genetic resources. Genetic diversity as one of the 10 parameters.
Digging described the African Genome Project as an ambitious long-term vision for Africa to complete the genome sequencing of different species.
“It will not happen today or tomorrow. It is a long-term vision but we hope to build along the way genomics education in Africa so that we appreciate the importance of this discipline.”
He added that the project will harness genomic information to diagnose and accelerate plant and animal breeding, as well as build the infrastructure and ecosystem for genomics science in Africa to benefit the local communities that nurture this unique species.
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Globally, about 3,000 animal and 800 plant genomes have been sequenced. However, only 20 species of plants are African, although the continent contains 45,000 species of plants, second only to South America. Of the 20, Ebenezer noted, none have been sequenced in Africa. Likewise, only 300 animals are from Africa and only 11 are arranged on the continent.
“We’re not where we should be,” said Dejecking, who has sequenced several genomes, including the genome that causes sleeping sickness in humans and animals.
“Previous genome projects have looked at plant species indigenous to Africa, but this sequencing was done in the United States or Europe,” said Djecking. “We have some sequencing platforms and labs across the African continent, but we haven’t built what’s coming next to analyze the data within Africa. To ask and answer other scientific questions within Africa, we still rely heavily on Europe, North America and elsewhere to fulfill our genomics ambition.”
We missed the opportunity, but recent examples show that we can catch up. “If you look at COVID and Ebola,” said Dejeking, citing the work of Professor Tulio de Oliveira in South Africa, Dr. Samuel Oyola in Kenya and Professor Christian Happe in Nigeria. . About 70 percent of the genetic sequencing capacity in Africa is concentrated in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Morocco and Egypt.
A billion dollar vision
AfricaBP will be implemented over a decade and researchers estimate that it will require funding of about $100 million annually. It will bring together 55 African researchers and policymakers from genomics, bioinformatics, biodiversity and agriculture – 11 for each geographic region of the African Union, according to a paper published in Nature in March 2022.
The $1 billion will come from governments, industry and bilateral financiers, Djecking said. African universities already involved in genomics are interested in the project.
Digging said the African Union is also enthusiastic about the project. The African Union sees the project fulfilling Agenda 2063, which recognizes science, technology and innovation as the main drivers and enablers for achieving the development goals of the African Union and member states.
To further support the project, the AfricaBP Open Institute of Genomics and Bioinformatics was established as a knowledge-sharing platform to provide capabilities, training and for industry owners who wish to connect with genomic experts across Africa. Ebenezer noted that the transfer of materials is a major policy issue.
Photo: African spider flower (Cleome Gynandra) is one of the endemic plant species that will have the genome sequenced. Photo: Bosani Bafana