Sequencing the White Guinea Yam

Student writer: Trenton Beckendorff
Student editors: Ana Lyons and Rita Chakrabarti
23andMe writer: Sarah Laskey

The Headline

An international collaboration between various research institutes led to the discovery of a sex-linked biomarker for the white Guinea yam [1].

Hold On. What Is a Biomarker?

Simply put, a biomarker is a measurable property of a biological organism. In genetics, we often analyze a particular sequence of DNA to make inferences about the organism that it came from. A well-known biomarker is a mutation in the BRCA1 gene, which medical professionals can use to infer an increased risk of developing breast cancer.

OK, But Why Yams?

The white Guinea yam, a tuberous root vegetable, is a key part of the economy and culture of Central and West Africa — so much so, in fact, that the region is referred to as the “civilization of the yam” [1]. However, growing this crop isn’t easy. Traditional crops in the United States, such as wheat or corn, have been bred selectively over generations to have favorable traits for production. Unlike these Western crops, the yam is undomesticated.

As a result, it is very susceptible to diseases and pests. Yams are also dioecy, which means that male and female plants are entirely separate [1]. By domesticating the crop, researchers hope to increase the plant’s yields and to improve food security for the region [1]. As a first step toward domestication, researchers analyzed the yam’s genome and found a biomarker that can be used to determine the sex of the yam in its seedling stage [1].

What’s the Impact?

In the short term, researchers believe that the ability to determine the sex of seedling yams will lead to direct savings on the labor and space required for cross-breeding the crop [1]. In the long term, this research opens the door to future discoveries of biomarkers that can strengthen the crop and eventually lead to its domestication, providing additional food security to the region [1].

Thought Question for Students

What are the social, economic, and health implications of applying genetics to the field of agriculture in developing nations?


1. Tamiru, M., Natsume, S., Takagi, H., White, B., Yaegashi, H., Shimizu, M., … & Urasaki, N. (2017). Genome sequencing of the staple food crop white Guinea yam enables the development of a molecular marker for sex determination. BMC biology, 15(1), 86.

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