Innovative Banana Breeding to Improve Nutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa

September 28, 2017

North Carolina Research Campus, Kannapolis, NC – Sept. 26, 2017-  Dr. Robert Reid, Research Assistant Professor with UNC Charlotte’s Bioinformatics Services Division at the North Carolina Research Campus, has been awarded a $25,000 grant through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for the “Improvement of Banana for the Smallholder Farmers in the Great Lakes Region of Africa”.  The goal of the Gates Foundation is to reduce hunger and poverty for millions of farming families in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia by increasing agricultural productivity in a sustainable way.

Rob Reid UNCC at the NCRC

Dr. Rob Reid, UNCC, at the NC Research Campus

Dr. Reid will be working with Dr. Al Brown of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) to improve genomic breeding approaches for the East African Banana. The IITA, celebrating its 50th year, is a non-profit organization that generates agricultural innovations to meet Africa’s most pressing challenges of hunger, malnutrition and poverty.

The Project

For this project, Dr. Reid will be sequencing selected varieties of the East African highland banana for the purpose of developing an Illumina SNP microarray, specific for banana genotyping. Further research will compare and contrast the sequencing results to the current banana reference genome to identify single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), which will be used in collaboration with Illumina to facilitate construction of a banana SNP chip. These efforts will be used to identify genetic marker regions of interest.

Ultimately, this will guide and accelerate breeding strategies to develop new varieties of crops that are more resistant to disease, provide more nutrition for consumers and better yield for farmers, stimulating local economies.

Economic Importance

Banana and plantain crop improvement is crucial to IITA’s research mandate. Their work to fight major banana and plantain pests and diseases is producing impressive results and securing one of the continent’s primary food sources. IITA scientists have introduced high-yielding, disease and pest resistant varieties with durable fruit quality.  The final objective is to create high-yielding banana hybrids by 2019 that can be multiplied for large-scale distribution.

Uganda and Tanzania consume as much as 50% of all bananas in Africa, but only yield 9% due to disease and pests. IITA’s genetic research aims to improve resistance and boost banana yields by 30%.  Such tools and strategies enhance the capacity of smallholders throughout sub-Saharan Africa to produce enough banana and plantain to meet demand.

Improving crops in sub-Saharan Africa is one of IITA’s top priorities. In sub-Saharan Africa, where millions depend on agriculture not only for food but also for their livelihoods, IITA’s research provides solutions to hunger, poverty and natural resource degradation.  Using sophisticated genetic engineering or selective breeding, IITA develops a wide range of staple crop varieties for different situations and purposes. Improved crops can have more farmer-preferred traits like higher yields or desired coloration.

In addition, IITA scientists produce biofortified crops that address hunger and micronutrient deficiencies particularly in children and women. These diverse crops can also have a longer shelf life, need less time to grow, or have better disease and pest resistance making them highly valuable to farmers.


About Dr. Brown

Dr. Brown, who obtained his PhD from the University of Illinois, has considerable experience with both conventional and marker-assisted breeding of several vegetable and fruit crops. At North Carolina State University, he was the lead PI on an international collaborative project to generate the first genomic draft sequence of the blueberry.  He was also the first researcher to use high density SNP arrays of rapeseed to generate saturated genetic linkage maps of related plant species. As an inaugural member of NCSU’s Plants for Human Health Institute, (PHHI) at the North Carolina Research Campus, Brown conducted collaborative research with industry partners to identify genetic factors in broccoli and blueberry, enhancing nutritional profiles and phytochemicals that are associated with human health.  He is a believer in translational science and believes that we can and should bridge the gap between basic and applied research to find real-world solutions to agricultural and health concerns.

About Dr. Reid

Dr. Reid received his PhD in Bioinformatics from UNC Charlotte.  Through various projects at PHHI, Drs. Reid and Brown began their collaboration work on the blueberry genome assembly, followed by the genetic analysis of glucosinolate variability in broccoli florets. Focusing mainly on genomics, Dr. Reid has been involved sequence assembly projects include the assembly and analysis of the oat and blueberry genomes, the transcriptome assemblies of various plants as well as echinoderms, assay development for genotyping and marker mapping, genome annotating, gene expression studies and characterizing plant pathways using a variety of bioinformatics approaches.

About the College of Computing and Informatics

The College of Computing and Informatics (CCI) is the largest and most comprehensive technology program in North Carolina, and one of the largest in the nation, offering scale and critical mass in cutting-edge research and innovation. CCI is a national leader in interdisciplinary partnerships, bridging fundamental research with critical scientific, societal, and national defense challenges. It is also the home to leading research centers and institutes, including the Cyber Defense and Network Assurability (CyberDNA) Center, the Bioinformatics Research Center, the Charlotte Visualization Center, the Complex Systems Institute, and the Center for Education Innovation.  Active research awards currently total $38 Million.  @UNCC_CCI

About the University of North Carolina at Charlotte

UNC Charlotte is North Carolina’s urban research university. It is the fourth largest campus among the seventeen institutions of the University of North Carolina system and the largest institution of higher education in the Charlotte region. Current enrollment exceeds 28,000 students, including 5,000 graduate students.

About the NC Research Campus

The North Carolina Research Campus, located in Kannapolis, NC, near Charlotte, has the mission of improving human health through nutrition. The scientific community of eight universities, the David H. Murdock Research Institute, global companies and entrepreneurs focus research and development on safer, more nutritious crops, healthier foods and precision nutrition. Learn more at

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