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Current projects

Our projects aim to increase the value of crops by addressing challenges along the value chain. We have two core themes: 1. Supporting genetic diversity in agriculture and 2. Enhancing food safety.

Supporting genetic diversity: Technology to support local seed systems and ensure appropriate benefit sharing

As an increasing number of plants and trees are used globally for food, fuel, fibre and cosmetics, it is important to ensure that communities that were the original custodians of the genetic diversity and associated indigenous knowledge are adequatey rewarded. Under the Access and Benefits sharing of the ITPGRFA, many countries are introducing legislation to protect indigenous plant material and farmers' rights. However, in order for such legislation to be implemented, genetic resources must be appropriately characterised and currently there are no protocols to identify and ensure benefit to originating communities. We are exploring both scientific methods to rapidly track and characterise genetic diversity of farmer-bred crops and mechanisms by which originating communities can be recognised and rewarded. We are piloting our methods for locally bred varieties of common bean in Zambia.

Government policy in Zambia has recently changed to allow farmers to record the seed of unique or local landraces that are currently unregistered. This will give farmers ownership of their varieties and allow them to sell the best landraces at a premium price. Local farm-bred varieties are often better adapted to the marginal lands of smallholder agriculture, requiring fewer inputs such as fertilizer and water. As such, locally-bred seed collections play a vital part in food security, but without adequate support for on-farm conservation, such local varieties are often replaced with commercial varieties that may not be well adapted to local environments and farming methods. To allow breeders maximum benefit from their crops, registration of seed varieties usually involves detailed descriptions of the morphological characteristics to ascertain distinctiveness, uniformity and stability. Farm-bred varieties retain a reasonable degree of variability and are not genetically uniform, ensuring greater resilience but making it more difficult to assign morphological descriptors. We are using population genetic tools to develop genetic 'fingerprints' that will help to distinguish farm-bred varieties for certification. This technology will allow Zambian seed breeders and multipliers to distinguish and register their locally-bred seed collection. In addition, we are liaising with Zambian and international governing bodies to explore ways by which financial returns can be passed back to the communities that have been the custodians and developers of these crops. Thus, Zambian farmers will have an affordable way to increase the value of local varieties, while benefiting from assured supply of resilient seed suited to their land. In collaboration with the Zambian Agricultural Research Institute, Self Help Africa, and University of Bath. Part of the Ph.D. work of Alex Abaca.

Enhancing food safety: Improved extraction procedures for mycotoxin analysis

Mycotoxins (harmful products of fungal contaminants) are a global public health concern. In particular, aflatoxins threaten the health of millions of people in developing countries. Management strategies must incorporate efficient testing, but current procedures are often laborious, expensive or insufficiently sensitive. We are working towards improving mycotoxin testing by developing an acoustic extraction platform that will lower the cost and complexity of sample preparation while enhancing the sensitivity and reliability of both on-site and laboratory test procedures. We have two projects in this theme:


Collaborating with Bio-Check UK, a company specialising in supplying cutting edge rapid diagnostic equipment, Premier Analytical Services and Unilever, we are exploring the use of acoustics for purification of vomitoxin (DON) and gluten.
Progress so far: A bespoke acoustic chamber has been designed and built for experimental testing of contaminant extraction from heterogenous food matrices. Our results so far show promise for a rapid and cost-effective method of separating small molecules from larger food particles, producing a sample enriched for the target analyte.


Collaborating with Bora Biotech, a Kenyan diagnostic services company, Self Help Africa, an agricultural development NGO, Secure Harvests, A UK biotechnology and sustainability consultants, and PepsiCo, we are exploring the feasibility of adapting the acoustic extraction platform to enable efficient rapid on-site aflatoxin testing for traders and farming co-operatives in Kenya.
Progress so far: A preliminary trip to Kenya to assess needs and potential impact of the technology established a clear interest in methods to improve aflatoxin testing amongst a range of stakeholders. Many thanks to all that spoke to us and helped us in our mission.

Machacos farmer

Finding out more about current challenges and opportunities for farmers in Machakos, Kenya. The farmer in the forefront of this picture grows mangoes, papaya and maize.

posho miller

A smallscale milling operation in Machakos. For such millers, current aflatoxin testing means sending samples to Nairobi and waiting a month for results, as well as incurring substantial cost. a localised testing facility would enable more testing and lower costs.

demonstrating the equipment

Demonstrating the AflaScope kit and learning more about ongoing research at ILRI/BecA.

Previous Projects

Enhancing food safety: Arsenic Tolerance in Brassica juncea

Arsenic contamination of groundwater is a problem in Bangladesh, Ghana, Burkina Faso and other parts of the world. Arsenic can accumulate in plant tissue, rendering any crops grown in contaminated areas inedible. Studies of B. juncea grown in the presence of arsenic reveal how well seedlings can germinate and levels of arsenic in the subsequent seed. Part of the Ph.D. work of Jane Li.

Brassica junceaBrassica hydroponics

Left: B. juncea plant
Right: Hydroponic system for arsenic delivery

Supporting genetic diversity: Reproductive Development of Abelmoschus manihot

A. manihot, also known as slippery cabbage or bele, is a nutritious vegetable commonly grown in parts of Asia and Africa. Conservation and breeding projects are underpinned by reliable methods of propagation. However, at present little is known about the life history of this species. We investigated the reproductive biology of the plant to develop reliable propagation methods for the plants so that the genetic diversity of the species can be conserved in a seed bank. In collaboration with the AVRDC - The World Vegetable Centre.

Abelmoschus seedsAbelmoschus seedlingslipper cabbage flowerslippery cabbage seed pod

Above left: A. manihot seeds. Above right: A. manihot seedling. Below left: A. manihot flower. Below right: A. manihot seed pod.

We have successfully induced flowers in controlled conditions at the University of Bath and have passed our results on to the AVRDC for testing in Taiwan.



Research News

Our first large dataset is complete for genetic characterisation of bean landraces. We see clear evidence that each farm-bred varietyis distinct from other landraces and improved commerical varieties.

We are making progress with experimental separation of complex food samples to improve mycotoxin analysis. Development of a bespoke acoustic extraction chamber for purification of mycotoxins is underway.