Improving clonal propagation to help yam farmers

Virus, fungi, and other pathogens stand in the way of efficient production of African white yams. Using advanced techniques in genetic manipulation and plant propagation, Jishnu Bhatt is developing a process to produce pathogen-free planting materials for farmers. View Halo Profile >>

Tell us about your research

My work focuses on improving clonal propagation of Dioscorea rotundata (African white yam). The plan is to scale up the production of yam somatic embryos using genetic manipulation and low-cost temporary immersion bioreactors (TIBs). It has been found that ectopic expression of certain master regulator genes (BBM, WUS, SERK) can jumpstart transcriptional networks leading to cellular dedifferentiation, toti-potency and somatic embryo production.

The plan is to scale up the production of yam somatic embryos using genetic manipulation and low-cost temporary immersion bioreactors (TIBs).

TIBs have demonstrated their ability to accelerate the propagation of many plant species, including yams. Combining these two methods could accelerate the process of producing pathogen-free planting material for African farmers.

Combining these two methods could accelerate the process of producing pathogen-free planting material for African farmers.

Can you explain that to a non-scientist?

A plant embryo is what is inside the seed of a plant. Plants can also reprogram their cells to form embryos from other tissues (leaves, stems, roots). These are called somatic embryos (SEs). Producing SEs is a good way to propagate a large number of plants that are disease-free. In Africa, viruses, fungi and other pathogens are a major problem in yam farming. The traditional method of reusing infected yams for planting material perpetuates the survival of pathogens and reduces yields. To improve the situation, we want to use genes found within the yam genome to help expedite SE production and show we can inexpensively scale it up using propagation vessels called bioreactors.

 Why did you choose this area of research?

I have always been interested in plants, but it wasn’t until college that I realized their importance in areas such as global food security, climate change, the environment and human health. I knew I wanted to do research where I could enjoy studying the biology of these leafy creatures while dedicating my efforts to improving the quality of life on earth. As an undergraduate, I developed my own major, plant biotechnology, to bridge my love of the molecular and plant sciences at my alma mater. For my Ph.D. in Plant Biology, I joined the Curtis Lab which was working on a NSF/GATES BREAD (Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development) project because it was a perfect fit for my research interests due to its singularly humanitarian goal.

How could your Grants4Ag project someday impact #healthforall #hungerfornone? 

A major bottleneck in plant research is the ability to genetically manipulate plants. As a result, only a tiny fraction of plant species have been understood well enough to perform plant biotechnology work. This limits the ability to adapt our crops quickly enough to respond to new diseases and environmental challenges. Furthermore, it typically results in monocultures that are not ideal for environmental health. My Grant4Ag project is focused on developing technology to overcome this bottleneck using the emerging field of nanomaterials. Doing so could open the door to allowing plant biotechnology work on a greater number of species, produce healthier harvests and provide a more diverse bounty on our dinner plates.