May 4, 2017: Dr. Mercy Elohor Diebiru-Ojo earns degree in Plant Breeding and Genetics at the West African Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI), University of Ghana.
ACCRA, GHANA: An exciting milestone for the Next Generation Cassava Breeding project (NextGen) was reached on 4 May 2017, when Mercy Elohor Diebiru-Ojo, of Lagos, Nigeria, successfully defended her thesis titled “Genetic and Physiological Analysis of Flowering in Cassava (Manihot esculenta Crantz)” at the West African Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI), University of Ghana. Diebiru-Ojo’s WACCI graduate program was funded by AGRA and her research was supported by NextGen.
“I am thrilled to have taken this important step toward realizing my dreams of being among the generation of plant breeders who will work towards upholding and ensuring food security in Africa,” said Diebiru-Ojo. Her work focused on “generating novel genetic information underlying the control of flowering trait in cassava, as well as inducing floral production in cassava in which successful use of plant hormones as plant growth regulators produced the most promising and significant results.”
“Mercy’s work contributes directly to the NextGen project’s goal of improving the flowering and seed set of cassava, the second most important staple-food crop in Africa, after maize,” said Tim Setter, professor and chair of Cornell University’s section of soil and crop sciences, who was one of Diebiru-Ojo’s mentors. “No other continent depends on cassava to feed as many people as does Africa, where 500 million people consume it daily. It is an important crop for food security.”
Despite its importance for food security on the African continent, cassava has received relatively little research and development attention compared to other staples such as wheat, rice and maize. The key to unlocking the full potential of cassava lies largely in bringing cassava breeding into the 21st century.
“Understanding of flowering mechanisms is an essential area of study in cassava breeding, because many elite cassava genotypes flower poorly, if at all,” said Chiedozie Egesi, adjunct professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell, who manages NextGen. “If cassava does not flower, it cannot be used in crossing. Some very promising cassava lines cannot then be used in breeding programs. Improved flowering and seed set would allow breeders to fully mobilize the genetic resources in their cassava breeding programs and Mercy’s work contributes directly to this objective.”
Peter Kulakow, cassava breeder at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) who was Dieburu-Ojo’s in-country supervisor, commended her teamwork: “Mercy was able to organize a strong team of technicians to phenotype a cassava flowering of over 700 genotypes in two locations for three years. This has greatly advanced our understanding of variation in cassava flowering.”
Diebiru-Ojo was enrolled in the WACCI program one year prior to three other NextGen PhD students: Olumide Alabi, Ismail Kayondo, and Lydia Ezenwaka. WACCI, which was founded in 2007 as a partnership between the University of Ghana and Cornell University, aligns perfectly with NextGen’s mission to train the next generation of plant breeders in Africa. The WACCI four-year doctorate program consists of one year of academic study at the University of Ghana and three years of thesis research at the students’ research station/university in their home countries. Students return to Ghana in the last six months of the final year to complete and submit their theses.
Diebiru-Ojo is a good example of how all of these institutes worked seamlessly together, since her supervisory team at WACCI was comprised of professors Isaac Asante, Essie Blay and Eric Danquah at the University of Ghana; she was awarded a fellowship from the Borlaug Leadership Enhancement in Agriculture Program (LEAP) to spend six months conducting preliminary research in the laboratory of Tim Setter at Cornell University; her thesis research at IITA was under the supervision of Peter Kulakow; and mentorship and advice was provided by Setter.
After completing the required year of coursework at the University of Ghana, Diebiru-Ojo returned to her home country of Nigeria, and engaged in fieldwork at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan. As a new PhD, she will continue to work after graduation as International Trials Manager of the BASICS project (Building an Economical Sustainable Integrated Cassava Seed System in Nigeria), developing improved cassava stem multiplication systems and managing production of cassava breeder seed.
Diebiru-Ojo’s plan for the near future is to publish some relevant papers from her thesis as soon as possible, because she is interested in “contributing to the body of science which will lead to advances in cassava breeding.”
Diebiru-Ojo is the first of 10 PhD students supported by NextGen to graduate. In addition to Diebiru-Ojo and the three other students at WACCI, NextGen funds six PhD students based at Cornell, and eight MSc students at Makerere University, Uganda. When trained, these plant breeders will build capacity for cassava breeding in partner countries and beyond.
The NextGen project is led by Cornell University, and works with 10 institutional partners across six countries on three continents: Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI/USA), Embrapa (Brazil), International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT/Colombia), International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA/Nigeria), National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI/Uganda), National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI/Nigeria), University of Hawaii (USA), U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service, and U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute. Most recently, NextGen Cassava has expanded to include Tanzania, partnering with the Lake Zone Agricultural Research and Development Institute (LZARDI).
(Quotes have been slightly edited for clarity.)