Scientists Now Using Barcodes in Their Research

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Tagging products with barcodes for easy price retrieval in supermarkets is a regular practice that people often take for granted.

Beyond supermarkets, barcodes is being employed across a whole spectrum of settings, including by scientists in their research.

The Accelerated Breeding Better Bananas project has developed, adapted, fine-tuned, and deployed a fully operational Banana breeding Tracking Tool (BTracT), which uses barcodes.

Researchers now use BTracT to routinely track each step of the breeding process of the breeding pipeline, from where the male parent’s pollen comes from to how the cooked product tastes.

This unique project seeks to improve the production and productivity of banana in Tanzania and Uganda, through the development and delivery of hybrid banana varieties that are expected to have 30% higher yield compared to the current varieties grown by farmers under the same conditions.

 Each plant in each location receives a specific barcode identity. Apart from parental pedigree and taste details, BTracT records agronomic performance, pest resistance, plant stature, color, and feel of cooked bananas.

These details are stored on the global banana breeding database MusaBase for all to access. The banana breeding process is extensive, and the performance of plants studied over several years can help identify the best performing and most suitable bananas with the most desired traits.

International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) Banana Breeder, Allan Brown, explains, “having real-time upload of data allows supervisors to keep track of operations while away from the Station. If a problem occurs, I am aware of it almost at the same time as the people on the ground. It also simplifies reporting as data needed for reports can quickly be accessed, also from anywhere in the world.” 

Brown obtained his PhD from the University of Illinois in 2004 and has considerable experience with both conventional and marker-assisted breeding of several vegetable and fruit crops. Throughout his academic and professional career he has worked with sweet corn (University of Minnesota), chili peppers (New Mexico State University), broccoli (University of Illinois), peas (Washington State University), and peach and blueberry (North Carolina State University).

At NCSU, he was the lead PI on an international collaborative project to generate the first genomic draft sequence of blueberry (Vaccinum corymbosum) and was the first researcher to use high density SNP arrays of rapeseed to generate saturated genetic linkage maps of related plant species.

While on the faculty of NCSU, he served as an inaugural member of the Plants for Human Health Institute and conducted collaborative research with industry partners to identify genetic factors in broccoli and blueberry that enhanced or modified the profiles of nutrients and phytochemicals in plants that are associated with human health (calcium, iron, zinc, glucosinolates, carotenoids, and flavonoids).

He is a believer in translational science and believes that we can and should bridge the gap between basic and applied research to find real-world solutions to agricultural and health concerns.

While banana is an important food and cash crop for millions of subsistence farmers in developing countries, its yield is still low. In Uganda, for example, the average yield of banana is 10 t/ha/year, yet has a potential yield of 60 t/ha/year and above. The low yield is attributed to both abiotic and biotic constraints.

Banana breeding is the most feasible intervention to solve these constraints and involves several extensive steps. Accurately tracking a breeding program’s progress and performance at all the different levels but BTracT simplifies this process. By helping identify the best hybrids without laboriously wading through reams of data, BTracT is transforming banana breeding and revolutionizing the whole process.

BTracT allows data capture on handheld devices, synchronizes data from various locations, and enables querying and analytics on a central dashboard. “This definitely makes data collection much more efficient and accurate, to the joy of the research assistants…

‘’We now receive data much more timely, usually the day after collection,” said Violet Akech, a research associate on Banana improvement at Sendusu station.

BTracT is now fully operational with the IITA banana breeding programs in Sendusu, Uganda and Arusha, Tanzania, across the entire workflow. It is also fully integrated into MusaBase, enabling seamless real-time data handling and data flow.

“We are now able to mine the data collected to improve the efficiency of the breeding program and also have important insights into biological processes that have been bottlenecks in Banana breeding. We see this as an important step towards being a data-driven breeding program”, adds Trushar Shah, one of the system’s developers.

Shah is the Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP) Hub Manager. He is a Kenyan national. He graduated from the University of Bristol, UK, with an honors degree in biochemistry, molecular biology, and biotechnology.

He holds an MSc in molecular modeling and bioinformatics from Birkbeck, University of London. Before joining IITA, he was a Scientist (Bioinformatics) and Coordinator, Data Management Unit at ICRISAT. He also worked as Bioinformatics Specialist & Computational Biology (2007–2009) at CIMMYT on the analysis of gene expression, association mapping, marker and genomic data.

Several private companies involved in banana tissue culture and seedling distribution systems are already enthusiastic about adapting BTracT to their systems. The banana breeding team is working closely with all interested partners to extend the use of BTracT to these systems.

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