Genome editing: huge potential in Africa

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In vitro gene editing width genetic CRISPR method. (Photo: depositphotos/lightso
In vitro gene editing width genetic CRISPR method. (Photo: depositphotos/lightsource)
Before the advent of CRISPR-Cas9 in 2012, precise genome modification was a complex process requiring heavy investment. Simple and fast, this revolutionary technology enables scientists to cut the DNA of plants, animals and humans at precise points, opening up previously unimaginable opportunities, such as the creation of disease-resistant plants or the treatment of diseases of genetic origin.

Africa lags behind

Unfortunately, the lack of funding, infrastructure and qualified personnel, as well as regulatory uncertainty on the African continent, prevent people from benefiting. This was revealed by an international group of researchers, including Thomas Auer from the Department of Biology at the University of Fribourg. Most countries devote less than one percent of their GDP to research, and there is an obvious lack of infrastructure for conducting molecular biology research", observes the Fribourg-based assistant professor, who is well acquainted with the African context, having organized courses on genome editing for the NGO TrEND in Africa. Added to this is the dependence of African institutions on external funding, and the control of intellectual property and licenses by foreign entities.

Considerable potential

Thanks to its greater precision and cost-effectiveness, genome editing could enable local scientists to achieve greater success in sectors crucial to Africa’s economic development. The study points out that agriculture on the continent accounts for up to 35% of GDP and is a major source of employment. By enabling the development of disease-resistant crops and animals, this technology could contribute to food security. The study cites the example of a fruitful collaboration between Kenyan and Ethiopian scientists that has led to the development of a genome-modified sorghum resistant to the parasitic plant striga, one of the most problematic in Africa.

Overcoming obstacles

The study’s authors make a number of recommendations to ensure that the full potential of genome editing can be exploited in Africa.
  • They suggest increased collaboration between states, notably through pan-African entities such as the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).
  • They call on governments to set up public-private partnerships, as well as financial and tax incentives.
  • They call for greater investment in training and infrastructure, to build up a critical mass of specialists with practical experience.

By strengthening scientific capacities and promoting innovation, Africa can achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and improve the living conditions of its inhabitants," concludes Thomas Auer.

Making genome editing a success story in Africa , Nature biotechnology, 19.03.2024