November 29, 2007

Case Western Reserve University students test potential new food sources for African countries

Christopher Cullis's biotechnology class characterizes DNA of native African plants in hopes of domesticating them


Case Western Reserve University students in Christopher Cullis's biotechnology lab are testing wild, native plants from South Africa to determine if the legumes have the potential to become domesticated crops and help feed the hungry there.

The students will be assigned lab experiments that focus on unraveling the genetic codes for the Bambara nut, cowpea and marama bean plants. These plants have been described by the National Academy of Sciences as the underutilized "lost crops of Africa."

According to Cullis, professor of biology in the Case Western Reserve College of Arts and Sciences, Bushmen traditionally have harvested these native legume plants in the wild. The Bambara bean, a protein-rich food source, is dug up like peanuts and then roasted, boiled, fried or ground into flour. The high-protein marama tuber thrives in poor soil conditions, and the seeds of the cowpea, which are not as nutritious as the Bambara or marama, already are eaten by some 200 million people as a source of carbohydrates.

Because of the limited resources for plant research in South Africa and Namibia, Cullis said the 34 students in his lab are able to contribute valuable manpower to finding molecular markers in these plants. Cullis estimates that his current class will isolate some 50 to 60 DNA markers by the end of the semester.

"Our one semester of work is equivalent to two to three years of work for a couple of graduate students in Africa," he said.

As part of this project, Cullis has enhanced his students' lab experience by broadening their international exposure through the use of new technologies in the classroom. He has received support from a three-year McGregor Fund grant to create the World-Wide Learning Environment (WLE) in the College of Arts and Sciences. Cullis started his work with South Africa during a previous Fulbright Scholar experience.

This semester, Cullis' students will be linked with researchers in South Africa through real visits to campus and through three videoconferences. Over the course of the semester, they will connect with researchers from the University of Pretoria, the University of Limpopo, Stellenbosch University, the University of Namibia and Eduardo Mondlane University.

"The WLE connections to real people in southern Africa has had an emotional impact on the students who now approach their work in a personal rather than abstract way," said Molly Berger, WLE project director and associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Read more about the World-wide Learning Environment.

For more information, contact Susan Griffith, 216-368-1004.

Posted by: Kimyette Finley, November 29, 2007 09:12 AM | News Topics: Collaborations/Partnerships, College of Arts and Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences, Environment, Faculty, Grants, HeadlinesMain, Research

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