N.C. State University scientists have won a $12.4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to transform the already hearty sweet potato into an even more robust crop.
Sweet potatoes are a critical staple in sub-Saharan Africa, where they are mainly grown in small plots by poor women farmers. North Carolina happens to be the top domestic producer of the crop.
The grant, which will be spread over four years, is aimed at creating modern genomic, genetic and bioinformatics tools to improve the sweet potato’s ability to resist diseases, insects, drought and heat.
Sweet potatoes have the potential to alleviate hunger, vitamin A deficiency and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 13.5 million metric tons are produced annually. They are a priority crop for the Gates Foundation’s Agricultural Development Program.
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Though the root vegetable may seem relatively simple, it has an unusually complicated genetic blueprint. Lack of knowledge about its genome and lack of modern breeding tools for the crop currently hamper efforts to expand production.
Partners on the grant include the International Potato Center; Michigan State University; the Boyce Thompson Institute at Cornell University; the University of Queensland; the National Crops Resources Research Institute in Uganda; and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Ghana.