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Yam BioTech Research Group Aiming to Boost Bio-Economic Growth

 


“Yam fe health, yam fe life, yam fe run, yam fe monee.”

This motto has guided the research work on Jamaican yams conducted by Executive Director of the Biotechnology Centre, The UWI, Mona, and leader of the UWI Yam Biotechnology Research Prof. Helen Asemota. Prof. Asemota, who has led the UWI Yam Research effort since the early 1990s, has been conducting extensive research on local yams using a range of procedures from crop improvement biotechnology, postharvest physiology and biochemistry, through phytochemical and molecular biology analyses, to biomedical studies of yams’ biomaterials and their interaction with diseases.

Her research on yams at UWI 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, she had analyzed yam tuber storage – browning, metabolism and molecular genetics – in Nigeria, her country of birth (at the Ahmadu Bello University and the University of Benin) and in Germany (University of Frankfurt) for ten years. Upon her arrival in Jamaica, Prof. Errol Morrison of the then Biochemistry Department (now Basic Medical Sciences), challenged her to prove that Yam’s metabolites do not cause or worsen diabetes.

She embraced the challenge by first writing a multidisciplinary proposal for research on Jamaican yam’s improvement and utilization, which she titled Bioengineering Caribbean Yams. Prof. Morrison on seeing the work she had done on yams in Nigeria and Germany, invited and supported this proposal for local yams 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& Technology, and the Basic Medical Sciences Department, Faculty of Medical Sciences.

Led by Prof. 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 analyzing 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; glycemic indexing, yam starch analyses for pharmaceutical applications; innovation of yam-based byproducts, enhancing with other crops/plants where necessary.” The Group researches on other bio-topics but they are labelled with ‘yam research’.

Prof. Asemota’s research team activities have earned over 100 refereed international journals publications; several patents; over 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. Among them are the Jamaica’s minister for Science, Energy& Technology, Dr. Andrew Wheatley, and the Executive Director of the Scientific Research Council, Jamaicai, Dr. Cliff Riley. 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 analyzing the biomaterials, yam biomaterials biomedical analyses, x-ray crystallographic analysis, microscopic analysis, scanning electron microscopic analysis, cytochemical analysis, pathological analysis, glycaemic index analyses, pharmaceutic 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 Prof. 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 corn starch 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 over 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 – utilizing 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 & 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 Shows.

Researchers of the Group have included at one time or another, UWI Scholars who studied under the yam group research agenda, among whom are Professor Samson Omoregie (NCU), Dr. Victor Brown (Dean, Fort Valley Univ, USA), Prof. Max Wellington (NCU), Dr. Cliff Riley (now Executive Director of the SRC), Dr. Lowell Dilworth (UWI Chem. Pathology), Dr. Curtis Green (now of SODECO), Dr. Dewayne Stennett (now of the Western Jamaica Campus), Dr. Perceval Bahadosingh (USA), Dr. Kathleen Lobban (UTECH), Dr. Sylvia Mitchell (Biotech Centre), Dr. Denise Bailey (Chemistry Dept.), Dr. Alexia Harvey (now Research Fellow to Dr. A. Pearson, BMS), Dr. Natwaine Gardner (UTECH), Dr. Felix Omoruyi (former Research Fellow in the Group – now at Texas A & M University), Dr. Marie McAnuff (City University, USA), Dr. McCoy (Pharmacology, BMS), Mr. Ryan Francis (SRC), Ms. Shivanjali Dondapati (current Research Assistant). There have been a host of other lead researchers - Prof. E. Morrison, Prof. M. Ahmad, Dr. S. Simon, Dr. S. Adebayo (now of Roosevelt University, Chicago) as well as other UWI Collaborators - Dr. D. McGrowder (UWI Chem. Pathology), Dr. William Aikens (UWI Surgery), Dr. Henry Lowe (Biotech R&D Institute), Dr. De La Haye,. Other contributors to our Yam Research efforts have included Prof. P. Coates-Beckford (Life Sciences), Prof. Helen Jacobs, Prof. Mohammed Bakir (both of Chemistry Dept.), and Mr. Felix Francis (UWI).

The Group has been blessed with continuous flow of Graduate students – thanks to the UWI Graduate School, the Faculty of Science& Technology, and the Faculty of Medical Sciences. The current Graduate students include Racquel Wright, Lowen Williams, Nikashae Scott, Tamara Grant, Nikola Lutas (Biotechnology) & Ryan Francis, Sasha-Gay Wright, Melissa Williams, Kenroy Wallace, Keaton Loggan (Biochemistry, Basic Medical Sciences), who constantly dwell in the labs for the research to proceed. Sponsors have included UWI Graduate School, EU, UN-FAO, EHF, EFJ, NIH, NSF, SRC, HFJ, Jamaica- Mexico Bilateral Commission, NSF, Principal’s Office of the Mona Campus. The Group’s efforts have also been facilitated by MORI – Mona Office for Research & Innovation, formerly known as the Office of Sponsored Research and the UWI Bursary Special Projects.

For the future, Prof. Asemota is poised to produce yam-based nano-particles, to enhance reactive surface area for some innovated yam-based preparations, as becomes necessary. Recently in collaboration with the State University of New York at Binghamton (SUNY), the Yam biotechnology team received a grant award to conduct studies directed at creating biosensors to detect yam diseases.

“Fungal infections are affecting yam growth and production, reducing yield badly and some varieties are at risk of going out of production, or into extinction. We want to examine this and create lowcost user-friendly biosensors to help detect yam diseases, early” Prof. Asemota said. In this effort, the group is collaborating with Prof. O. Sadik of SUNY and internally in Jamaica with Professors V. Wright and P. Alonge of NCU, Hugh Dixon of STEA and some local farmers in Manchester & Southern Trelawny.

Meanwhile, the Biotechnology Centre aims to move the research outputs ‘from the lab to the streets’ and into ‘the Biotechnology marketplace’ and to train young ones to contribute to bio-economic growth in the nation and region, in this type of way for tuber crops and other crops of our land.

Professor Asemota welcomes Usain Bolt’s claim at Olympics re Jamaican Yams and looks forward to effectively collaborating to biotechnologically move “Jamaican Yams Fi Sports life” into the global market. She added that Usain Bolt has proven that ‘it can work’ from repeated unequalled Olympic victories, which the country must capitalize on to sell Jamaican yams by-products to the whole world. This is what she believes Usain Bolt was trying to effect, to take the output of the Trelawny local yam farmer to the world, but instead we diverted to arguing as to whether the yams have the ‘health factors’.

“We are now saying yes they and their byproducts have, what next, but to engage enhanced yam production and yam tablets & nutraceuticals for the world? Presently, Jamaica exports less than 8% of her yam production, ‘we can produce more if we wan’. The Group keeps dreaming unto – “Yard Yams BioSportsProducts from the country of the World’s fastest men and women, Yard Yams for the Sports World”, and is poised to bio-technologically substantiate it, with the help of various local and international collaborators and bio-entrepreneurs – including our local yam farmers and sellers, and our indigenous knowledge owners of yam bread, yam tonics and all dem Trelawny and maroon yam nutraceutics that dem bring to Trelawny yam festivals, in the 1990s & 2000s.


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