By George Munene
Livestock researchers at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Nairobi are using gene editing to identify genes that could help curb the spread of the as yet vaccine-less African animal trypanosomiasis, a pest that spreads sleeping sickness in animals and humans. The scientists are also looking at introducing desirable traits such as heat tolerance and disease resistance into African cattle and chickens.
“Eradicating African animal trypanosomiasis is extremely important as we estimate that Africa loses 1 billion dollars annually due to human and livestock diseases,” explains Prof. Steve Kemp, program leader in livestock genetics at ILRI.
Trypanosomiasis leads to farmer losses by causing anemia and lower reproduction rates in animals. If untreated, the disease can be fatal.
Through the Kenya National Biosafety Authority (NBA), ILRI has had its application to use gene editing to confer resistance to African trypanosomiasis in an indigenous goat approved after conducting necessary risk assessment measures.
With most of Africa’s livestock keepers having small scattered herds across arid and semi-arid areas where artificial insemination services are limited, it makes reaching them even if the research is successful will be difficult
To combat this, ILRI is employing genome editing to research technologies that will help disburse improved genetics, such as using surrogate sires to support genetic improvement for smallholder livestock keepers.
For poultry farmers, scientists are using other advanced biotechnology applications to help smallholders in Kenya and Tanzania. This is through the rolling out of an improved transfer of genetics that focuses on indigenous varieties of chickens, ducks, geese, and pigeons that are highly adaptive to low diets and tolerant of diseases.
“It would be a tragedy if they were lost. Therefore, as we improve the smallholder production system, we back up the existing diversity. This is done through the biobanking technique that cultures chicken primordial germ cells, ’Kemp explained.