Published on 01.05.2024

Genome editing: immense potential in Africa

With the invention of CRISPR-Cas9, that famous pair of molecular scissors, genome editing has revolutionized fundamental research around the world. Until now, however, the African continent has remained on the fringe of this scientific progress. Researchers, including Thomas Auer of the University of Fribourg, are convinced that this technology will make it possible to meet major challenges in a variety of areas like agriculture, livestock breeding, and medicine.

Before the advent of CRISPR-Cas9 in 2012, precisely modifying the genome was a complex process that entailed investing considerable resources. Simple and quick, this revolutionary technology allows scientists to cut the DNA of plants, animals and humans at precise areas, opening up opportunities that were previously unimaginable, including the engineering of disease-resistant plants and the treatment of genetic disorders.

Africa, a continent lagging behind
For Africa, unfortunately, the lack of funding, infrastructure and qualified personnel, as well as the regulatory uncertainty that reigns over the continent, prevents scientists taking advantage of the technology. These are the conclusions of an international group of researchers, including Thomas Auer of the Department of Biology at the University of Fribourg, recently published in Nature Biotechnology. «Most countries devote less than one percent of their GDP to research and there is an obvious lack of infrastructure for carrying out molecular biological research,» Assistant Professor Auer pointed out. He is well acquainted with the situation in Africa, where he has taught genome editing for the NGO TReND in Africa. In addition, African institutions often depend on outside funding while intellectual property rights and licenses are held by foreign entities.

Considerable potential
Thanks to its greater precision and a more favorable efficiency ratio, genome editing could enable local scientists to do better in crucial sectors in terms of Africa’s economic development. In this regard, the Correspondence article recalls that agriculture on the continent represents up to 35% of its GDP and is an important source of jobs. By developing crops and livestock that are more resistant to disease, this technology could help ensure food security. The study cites the example of Kenyan and Ethiopian scientists successfully working together to design a genetically modified Sorghum variant that is resistant to a plant parasite, Striga, which is one of the most devastating in Africa.

Overcoming obstacles
The authors of the study offer several recommendations for making the most of genome editing in Africa.

  • They suggest greater collaboration between countries, notably through pan-African entities like the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), or the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).
  • They invite governments to create public-private partnerships and tax and financial incentives.
  • They plead for additional investment in education and infrastructure in order to form a critical mass of specialists who have practical experience.

«By reinforcing scientific abilities and promoting innovation,» Thomas Auer concludes, «Africa can reach its Sustainable Development Goals while improving the living conditions of its inhabitants.»

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