Farmer Joseph Williams (left) shows researchers a piece of yam during their field trip to his farm in Manchester on July 18. Looking on from right are Professor Vincent Wright, NCU, Professor Helen Asemota, UWI, Mona, Professor Omowunmi Sadik, SUNY, and Professor Patience Bazuaye-Alonge, NCU.

Photo by Shorná Thompson

Researchers using smart technology to assist yam farmers

SUNY team visits The UWI’s Biotechnology Centre, meets local yam farmers

THE UWI, Mona and the State University of New York (SUNY) – Binghamton have been collaborating to identify the different forms of pathogens that exist in yams in Jamaica. The hope is that the team will be able to revolutionise yam production through the development of low-cost biosensors and molecular genetic tools which can detect diseases and allow for early intervention.

“We [The UWI Biotechnology Centre] are looking at the infections of yam, and SUNY wants to help us with their technology to build a biosensor that will detect these diseases even before the symptoms appear – once the infection is there, whether in the soil or in the yam,” said Director of The UWI Biotechnology Centre, Professor Helen Asemota.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) in the USA recently granted funding to The UWI’s Biotechnology Centre and SUNY Binghamton to carry out this project. The central researchers on the project are graduate students Tamara Grant and Shivanjali Dondapati, with Elizabeth Mills serving as liaison officer.
Representatives from Northern Caribbean University (NCU), the southern Trelawny Environmental Agency (STEA) and yam farmers in Manchester and Southern Trelawny are also collaborating on the project. This synergy will facilitate the sharing of ideas between universities and support the transfer of technology.
Against this background, a group of SUNY researchers visited the Mona Campus from July 15 to 22 to conduct field experimentations on a number of farms in order to assess the development, field application and acceleration of the biosensor device.

This device will be able to detect the presence of anthracnose disease caused by the fungus Collectotrichum gloeosporioides. While the pathogen can be controlled by chemical fungicides, these may lead to environmental damage and fungicide resistance. The fungus has had a devastating effect on the production of yam crops in Jamaica since 2004, especially sweet yam.
“Sweet yam is in demand in the international market [but] we are not meeting the demand because of the anthracnose disease. It reduces yield so some farmers are no longer able to produce it,” said Asemota.

During the recent visit, members of the team went to a number of affected farms and met with the owners. Prior to the field trips, SUNY team members Dr Roland Miller and Professor Omowunmi Sadik interacted with members of the Yam Biotechnology Research Group and postgraduate students, observed their progress, provided input and carried out analytical activities in the biotechnology research lab. They also met with collaborators from NCU and various UWI researchers across the Mona Campus.

Asemota, who heads the multidisciplinary UWI Yam Biotechnology Research Group, has been leading The UWI’s effort in yam research for more than two decades. With her guidance, the team has produced more than 100 refereed international journal publications, four patents and more than 200 conference abstracts. They have already explored yam storage physiology, improving yam production using biotechnology, DNA profiling of yams, molecular genetics of in vitro and ex vivo production of yams and the interaction of yam biomaterials with diseases (such as diabetes and cancer). Some of their current research areas include finding ways to mitigate waste of yam crops through the breakage of dormancy and the use of specific biomolecular properties in yams as possible sports medical foods/nutraceutics, among several other areas.