Have You Met Yams?

Marie Florence Ngo Ngwe was introduced to science in primary school. The goal of her work is to ensure food security in Western Africa by working on yams, a plant that can be stored for a very long time. The Cameroonese scientist aims to increase the productivity of this plant.

Marie Florence Ngo Ngwe is motivated by a desire to improve living conditions for her fellow Cameroonians whilst preserving local biodiversity.

During her fellowship, she  will investigate the genetic diversity of yam species from the Dioscorea genus. Yams are one of the principal sources of nutrition in West Africa and their extended storage capacity contributes to food security in the region during periods of food scarcity. Yams reproduce by clonal multiplication and local farmers use the tubers from their harvest as seed for the following season.

Although this method has the advantage of providing farmers with a ready source of tubers for planting, it also increases the likelihood of disseminating plant pathogens which can have catastrophic effects on the quality of the harvest. The absence of sexual reproduction means that the evolution of the species is very slow and its capacity to resist disease and adapt to changing environmental conditions is limited. The increase in the destruction of indigenous forests is leading to a reduction of wild yam species. Further, as farmers cultivate only a small number of species, the genetic diversity of Dioscorea is gradually being eroded.

Using tubers from eight yam species collected in three regions of Cameroon, Marie Florence will raise young plants from each species in an experimental field. Once in Montreal, she will do a molecular analysis of the DNA of each species using dry leaf samples. She will isolate parts of the genomes, called retrotransposons, which are generally conserved across different species over long evolutionary periods. These DNA fragments will then be amplified and sequenced so that, using bioinformatics software, she can determine the degree of relatedness between the eight different species, and hence, the genetic diversity of the Dioscorea genus.

In her home laboratory, Marie Florence will work with the same eight species to test different tissue culture techniques to see which one is most effective in inciting the production of microtubers which could be used both to conserve the genetic diversity of Dioscorea in a seed bank and as a commercial source of genetically diverse yam seed for farmers.

For Women in Science

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