Sweet Success for Global Food Staple

Iowa State University researchers are applying cutting-edge technology to unlock the potential of the yam, a crop that carries major significance across the globe.

Funded by a three-year, $830,000
 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Kan Wang, Global Professor in Biotechnology, and her colleagues are working to develop a suite of technological tools to allow scientists to develop yams with improved yields, nutritional value and better resistance to stresses. The
grant is part of NSF’s Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development, or BREAD, program.

Yams are a plant species cultivated throughout Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America for their starchy tubers. Yams are less common in the United States and often confused with sweet potatoes, 
a separate plant species.

“The yam is a tropical crop that’s extremely important globally and very nutritious,” Wang says. “It carries cultural importance throughout Africa. It has nutritional, cultural and even medicinal significance to populations across the globe.”

The research team includes co- investigators Bing Yang, an associate professor of genetics, development
and cell biology and Mark Westgate,
a professor of agronomy. The team also includes an international co-investigator, Leena Tripathi, a scientist with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Kenya.

The team, led by Wang, utilizes revolutionary genome-editing technology including the CRISPR/Cas9 system to forge a greater understanding of the plant’s genome. They’ll develop an array of tools to allow future researchers to use the technology
to answer specific questions regarding
yam gene function and disease resistance, among other uses, Wang says.

CRISPR/Cas9 is a genome-editing platform allowing scientists to delete, replace or insert genes for functional genomic study. Wang says the technology has been applied to other crops, such as rice and corn, but similar study of yams has lagged behind. Wang and her team will look at how the technology has been applied to other crops to see if those methods also work for yams or if they’ll need to be adjusted.

Wang says the project fits with
 Iowa State’s longtime connection to research and outreach in the realm
of international agriculture and the recently-launched Presidential Initiative for Interdisciplinary Research.

“NSF always seeks for broader impact of all funded research programs. The strong reputation and long history of the college’s international agriculture program, especially outreach and engagement for Africa improvement, greatly helped us land this grant,” Wang says.

Project personnel conduct focused workshops and training for African scientists, and Iowa State undergraduate students will travel to Africa in connection with the research as a study abroad opportunity, Wang says.

“In three years, we hope we will have created a toolkit for scientists to increase the value of the yam as a crop,” she says. “That means better yields, more resistance to stress and greater nutritional and medicinal value.”