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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

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, giving them breeders' rights. 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 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.

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.