YOUNG PEOPLE TAKING CHARGE OF THE REGION’S BIOECONOMIC GROWTH: Professor Helen Asemota (2nd left), pose with a group of graduate research students. Front Row: From right are Shivanjali Dondapati, Tamara Grant, Princess Bell, and Lowen Williams. Back Row: From left are Carlton Barrows, Elizabeth Mills, Racquel Wright, Nikolai Lutas and Kenton Logan.

UWI yam research poised to boost bioeconomic growth

FOR PROFESSOR HELEN Asemota, Executive Director of the Biotechnology Centre, The UWI, Mona, and Leader of The UWI Yam Biotechnology Research Group, the Jamaican yam is serious business.
Asemota, who has led the UWI Yam Biotechnology Research Group since the early 1990s, has been conducting extensive research on local yams. The group utilises procedures ranging from crop improvement biotechnology, post-harvest physiology and biochemistry, through phytochemical and molecular biology analyses, to biomedical studies of yams biomaterials and their interaction with diseases.
Her research on yams was initially triggered by the storage and persistent production problems in the yam industry prevalent in the island in the 1990s. Prior to coming to Jamaica, Asemota had analysed yam tuber storage – browning, metabolism and molecular genetics – in Nigeria (her country of birth, at the Ahmadu Bello Univeristy and the University of Benin) and in Germany (University of Frankfurt) for 10 years. Upon Asemota’s arrival in Jamaica, Professor Errol Morrison of the then Biochemistry Department of The UWI (now Basic Medical Sciences), challenged her to prove that ‘yams metabolites do not cause or worsen diabetes’. She embraced the challenge by first writing a multidisciplinary proposal for research on the improvement and utilisaton of Jamaican yams, which she titled, “Bioengineering Caribbean Yams”. Morrison, on seeing the work she had done on yams in Nigeria and Germany, invited and supported this proposal for our local yam research. The grant proposal was approved for funding under the EU-EDF Lome III Regional Projects.

“I started the study in Jamaica on the biochemical effects of cutting the tuber heads off at harvest (a practice of Jamaican yam farmers). We first studied the biochemical advantages and disadvantages in order to improve yam production and storage in Jamaica. These initial efforts, through incorporation of research students, postdocs, and various visiting scientists resulted in the large multidisciplinary UWI Yam Biotechnology Research, operating in both the Biotechnology Centre, Faculty of Science and Technology, and the Basic Medical Sciences Department, Faculty of Medical Sciences.

Led by Asemota since the early 1990s, and from the early 2000s jointly by herself and her former PhD student, Dr Andrew Wheatley, the group has been conducting research studies for improvement of yams and some other crops, DNA profiling and analysing their interactions with diseases; and developing products towards boosting agro-medico-bio-economic growth.

“From 1991- 2016, we studied Jamaican yams in any bio-research way possible – the 25 Jamaican yam varieties produced in Jamaica, focusing on yam storage physiology; the biochemistry of the yam tuber; how to improve production using biotechnology tools; carbohydrate metabolism in stored yam tubers; molecular genetic studies and DNA fingerprinting of the Jamaican varieties; molecular genetics of in vitro and ex vivo production of yams; yam natural products and their metabolic effects in animal model of diseases (of course with diabetes at the lead), and also using other crops/tubers; the interaction of yam biomaterials with other diseases – hyperlipidemia/ hypercholesterolemia, cancer, as compared with controls and with selected drugs in the market; glycaemic indexing, yam starch analyses for pharmaceutical applications; innovation of yam-based by-products, enhancing with other crops/plants where necessary.”

Asemota’s research team activities have earned more than 100 refereed international journal publications; several patents; more than 220 conference abstracts/proceedings and numerous technical reports to various funding agencies, in addition to the various PhD scholars serving in various capacities within the country and elsewhere.
Publications from the group on yams cover the areas of the biochemistry of yam, biotechnological approaches to yam production and quality improvement, phytochemical procedures for analysing the biomaterials, yam biomaterials biomedical analyses, X-ray crystallographic analysis, microscopic analysis, scanning electron microscopic analysis, cytochemical analysis, pathological analysis, glycaemic index analyses, pharmaceutical and pharmacological analysis, natural products analysis and the physiological analysis of yam storage.

The studies have progressed in recent years under the theme “Yams – from farm to finished products” with the aim to promote Jamaican yams as food, medicine and an industrial raw materials source. It is not common to find any crop as widely studied in the way Asemota’s group has studied Jamaican yams. The research has contributed in no small way to draw attention locally and internationally to Jamaican yams; to the improved quality of yams grown locally, and yam starches have been compressed into stable compacts for possible medical industrial use in making tablets – especially in the face of cornstarch being diverted to other uses.

The research has also uncovered the medicinal value of Jamaican yams in the treatment of ailments such as cancer, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes and acquired or genetic disorders such as hyperlipidemia. With the more than 30 PhD and MPhil theses that have been produced, many more are still studying the use of yams in the treatment of illnesses, and as industrial raw materials.

“Our target is to produce yam-based medicine, yam-based biofuel, yam-based functional foods, etc – utilising the biodiversity and taxonomical advantages among Jamaican yams. We have some patents, we are poised to developing marketable products. Competition is mounting and we need to arrive quickly. We increasingly need cooperative collaboration in the bio-entrepreneurial angles.

“We have developed yam production improvement strategies (PhD study of Dr Andrew Wheatley), our local yams and dasheens have health-promoting attributes (PhD studies – Phillip Grindley, Victor Brown, Marie McAnuff). Our purple yams have been shown to have anti-cancer properties (PhD study of Dr Dennis Bailey), the Jamaican bitter yam has cholesterol-lowering properties (PhD study of Dr Dewayne Stennett), our local yams have better binding capacity starches than others, especially with very simple chemical modification (PhD studies of Cliff Riley, Alexia Harvey), etc, etc. On the side, we have also used methodologies derived from yam analyses to work on other plants as well – for example, the group got a USA patent for their work on ortanique peels polymethoxy flavones (PMFs) for combating hypercholesterolemia (PhD study of Dr Curtis Green).”

Additionally, the group has developed many innovative by-products from yams. The value-added products include yam spreads (cheesy yam spread, renta yam spread, veggie yam spread), purple yam jams, yam chips, yam moringa bars, etc. Some of the products have been highlighted at the annual Denbigh Agricultural Show.
For the future, Asemota is pushing to produce yam-based nanoparticles to enhance reactive surface area for some innovated yam-based preparations, where necessary. The centre also aims to move the research outputs from the lab to the streets and into the biotechnology marketplace, and to train more young people to contribute to bioeconomic growth in the nation and region.