Research work to produce Ghana’s first gene-edited crop with increased Vitamin A content has begun at the University of Cape Coast.

Samuel Acheampong of the university’s Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology has over the last year been working to increase beta carotene (which is a precursor of Vitamin A) content in sweet potato using CRISPR gene-editing technology.

The resulting product will additionally have a higher yield.

CRISPR gene editing is a technique for modifying the genetic materials of living organisms using an enzyme called Cas9 from bacteria.

“One thing about gene editing is, it’s a one-time event. Once you introduce the Cas9 (into the genetic material of a targeted organism), the Cas9 cuts the DNA.

University of Cape Coast begins research to produce Ghana’s first gene-edited crop with increased vitamin A

“Now, when that cut is made, the organism will repair. And once the repair is done, that is all. Cas9 is just an enzyme, within few minutes or hours, it is degraded or denatured, there is no trace of it in the organism again,” he explained when Joy News visited his laboratory in Cape Coast.

“You are not introducing anything new from another organism. It’s the same organism but some changes are made. So it’s like a shirt that is stained; you use bleach or anything to clean off after which you erase it and that is all, there’s no trace of the soap or the bleach that you use. That’s how gene editing works,” Mr Acheampong explained.

The plant breeder is using CRISPR-Cas9 to knock out the genes responsible for the production of an enzyme in the sweet potato that converts beta carotene (the Vitamin A precursor) into other products.

This will leave higher beta carotene content in the crop which when consumed by humans, gives them Vitamin A.

“For sweet potatoes, we want to look at how we can use the CRISPR-Cas9 system to increase beta carotene. Beta carotene is a big deal for us because as animals. When we eat beta carotene, our cells are able to convert them into vitamin A,” Mr. Acheampong explained.

“The other aspect of my work, I’m looking at how to increase the size of the storage roots, and I’m looking at a set of genes which affects the transport of sugars in plants.

“So I’m trying to use the CRISPR genome editing to knock out some set of genes, so that there will be more flow of sugars in the crop which will definitely lead to increase in the yield,” he explained.

The World Health Organisation estimates that between 250,000 and 500,000 children in the developing world go blind every year as a result of Vitamin A deficiency, making it the world’s leading preventable cause of childhood blindness.

Fifty per cent of them die within a year of losing their sights, according to the WHO. Respiratory illnesses, infectious and diarrheal diseases in children have all been linked to Vitamin A deficiency.

Mr Acheampong started the research whilst studying at North Carolina State University in the USA. He has since transferred the work to his lab back home at UCC.

University of Cape Coast begins research to produce Ghana’s first gene-edited crop with increased vitamin A

“I’m at the developmental stage, I’m developing the metrics to optimise the conditions for efficient regeneration of sweet potatoes,” he told Joy News.

CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology is only about 8 years old. So far, only one genome edited crop – soyabean with about 20% less saturated fatty acid compared to regular varieties – has been commercialized in the world.

Work on virus-resistant tomato, non-browning apple, drought-tolerant maize, among several other crops is ongoing using the technology. Gene editing is considered a superior technology to genetically modified organism (GMO) technology because the earlier does not introduce genes from other living organisms into the target crop.  

Acheampong describes CRISPR gene editing as a more precise, straight to the point, efficient and easier to use technology.

“For genome editing, we don’t need much. Once you have a basic tissue culture laboratory, we can do genome editing. Once you have your autoclave and you have your growth chamber, you are done.

“You are good. This is something that’s basic for any lab that you can think of that’s properly functioning anywhere here in Africa… CRISPR is actually a game-changer,” he said.

“Genome editing, relatively, is cheap. You don’t need so much expertise to do it. You don’t need very specialized instruments before you can do it… So it makes the CRISPR genome editing a very potent technology for food production and future food security,” he added.

Being the first work using the CRISPR technology in Ghana, Acheampong is convinced that once successful, the technology can be used to solve several other agricultural production challenges in the country and Africa as a whole.

“In Ghana, we have a big problem with iron deficiency, anaemia. In the food we eat, the iron content is low, and we can use gene editing to increase the iron content. There are many other traits that we can use gene editing to do (improve),” he explained.

“In the US, they have used it, they have been successful in many plants. For Ghana and West Africa, we are now also doing it. You see when technology comes, you have to adapt it to your own situation and use it to your advantage. So I believe that when this one goes up, it will encourage other scientists to also pursue studies related to the CRISPR-Cas9 system,” he added.

If this work is proved successful, it’s going to be very big for the scientific community and those who are interested in food production, Acheampong observed.

He estimates it will take him up to 5 years to complete his research work before any conversation can begin around putting the product in the hands of farmers.

“It can take you up to five years to develop it, but getting it to the market may take a long time. Depending on regulations, etc,” he explained.

Acheampong is confident farmers and the public will accept it his product.

“Right now, they don’t have much understanding of the technology. And I believe that as time goes on and as we explain this, people will their understanding better and better. So I definitely believe that they will accept it,” he noted.

He is urging African governments to invest in gene editing technologies.

“Governments across Africa should embrace genome editing to improve traits in your crops because when government sponsors a project, a project becomes successful and is given out to the people, I believe people will be more confident in it further than allowing biotech companies to develop it and then sell it to farmers…It will be affordable, everybody can have easy access to it and use it,” he observed.

“I love technology and I think people should embrace technology. We need technology to improve. We need technology in a lot of things that we do. Without technology, we will forever stay where we are. We will not improve. So we should embrace technology and use them for our improvement,” the UCC scientist added.

Asked why he chose sweet potato to work on, Acheampong explained it is an important crop because it is very resilient, has high yield and is adaptable to many environmental conditions.

“In addition, sweet potato production does not require sophisticated input, you just get your sweet potato, you get your hole, your cutlass, … and then you go. So it makes sweet potato very, very important. And you don’t need much input for this production,” he explained.

“And as you know, climate change and all these changes that are coming, sweet potato can be used to be adapt to these conditions. And sweet potato is also nutritious, for example, there are varieties that have a high amount of beta carotene, so it makes sweet potato a very good crop for food security in Ghana and many parts of the world,” he added.