UCD scientists work on genetic study to save African farmers’ jobs

SCIENTISTS in University College Dublin are playing a key role in a genetic study which could help save the livelihoods of millions of African farmers.

Professor David McHugh and his colleagues at UCD are part of a research group which has identified two genes that could help defend cattle against the tsetse fly-borne disease “nagana” which costs African farming up to €3.5bn annually. The genes may also shed some light on the human form “African sleeping sickness”. The African animal trypanosomiasis, commonly known locally as “nagana,” a Zulu word meaning “to be depressed,” is found in 36 sub-Saharan African nations and is caused by the trypanosome parasite which is transmitted by tsetse fly bites.

The World Health Organisation estimates 30,000 Africans a year get the human form of the sleeping sickness. The human and economic cost has drawn a huge international response.

The study in which UCD has been partnering is led by scientists from the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute. Other research partners are based in Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh universities, and also others in institutes in Britain and South Korea.

UCD’s Prof David McHugh said: “Trypanosomiasis or African sleeping sickness is caused by infection with trypanosomes, blood-borne, flagellate protozoans transmitted by tsetse flies in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“The disease affects humans and livestock and is endemic across more than one third of the African continent. Bovine trypanosomiasis is a major constraint on cattle production and agricultural development, costing huge economic losses annually.

“We have been using modern genomics to shed light on the phenomenon of trypanotolerance; the evolved resistance to trypanosome infection displayed by certain cattle breeds in West and Central Africa.

“Affymetrix GeneChip technology, cDNA microarrays and ancillary functional genomics technologies are being used to pinpoint the genes and gene products contributing to resistance and susceptibility in key populations.”

The researchers are optimistic that a breeding programme could lead to the development of a small, disease-resistant herd within the next ten to 15 years. Genetic engineering, though still in its infancy, could see this disease-resistant herd bred within four or five years.

The researchers group said they drew on the fact that while the humped cattle breeds characteristic of much of Africa are susceptible to disease-causing trypanosome parasites, a humpless West African breed called the N’Dama is not seriously affected.

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