New advances in the battle against a major disease threat to cattle and people in Africa

ILRI research on biotechnology to fight a major disease threat to cattle and people in Africa

An 8-month old cloned Boran calf named Tumaini (meaning ‘hope’ in Kiswahili), on the left, is part of a long-term ILRI research project to develop cattle for Africa that are genetically resistant to trypanosomiasis (photo credit: ILRI/Paul Karaimu).

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), a member of the CGIAR Consortium, is a non-profit organization based in Africa. ILRI’s mission is to use the best and safest livestock science available to confront poverty, hunger, and disease in the developing world, where livestock provide livelihoods and food for hundreds of millions of people.

One of ILRI’s most important priorities today is to help poor livestock keepers in Africa deal with the constant threat of a devastating disease called trypanosomiasis. This disease is arguably Africa’s most important livestock disease, wasting and killing cattle, commonly the most important asset of poor households. The human form of the disease is called sleeping sickness, which afflicts tens of thousands of people every year, killing many of them, and putting tens of millions more people at risk.

As part of ILRI’s comprehensive fight against trypanosomiasis, the institute is now in the very early stages of a project to develop disease-resistant cattle, which could save the lives of livestock and people both. Thus far, ILRI and its partners have taken a preliminary step in the process, which involved successfully cloning a male calf from one of East Africa’s most important cattle breeds, the Boran. The calf is healthy and is being raised at ILRI’s research facilities in Kenya.

A next step is to develop a new Boran clone modified with a gene that naturally confers resistance to the disease. This involves using a synthetic copy of a gene sequence originally identified in baboons that should protect cattle against this devastating disease.

A final step will be to use these disease-resistant cattle in breeding schemes that will provide African countries with another option in their fight against trypanosomiasis.

This research potentially offers a reliable, self-sustaining and cost-effective way of protecting tens of millions of African cattle against disease and untimely death, as well as dramatically reducing poverty across Africa. By reducing the reservoir of pathogens, this should also help to save thousands of human lives each year.

It could take up to two decades to develop disease-resistant cattle herds for Africa. ILRI and its partners are also continuing to pursue other options for fighting trypanosomiasis, such as rationale drug treatment and integrated disease control methods.

For ILRI, public safety and animal welfare are paramount; this means working with all the relevant Kenyan and international regulatory authorities to ensure that the highest bio-safety standards are always employed. In line with its commitment to transparency, ILRI places all of its research results in the public domain.

ILRI is working with a team that includes scientists from New York University, along with experts from the Roslin Institute in Scotland, and Michigan State University in the USA. The fundamental research aspects of this project are being funded by the US National Science Foundation.

For further information, see:
ILRI website:

National Science Foundation:

2009 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) on original breakthrough in this research project:

Or contact one of the following people:

Jimmy Smith
ILRI Director General

Suzanne Bertrand
ILRI Deputy Director General for Biosciences

Steve Kemp
Leader of ILRI’s research on this topic

About ILRI: better lives through livestock
The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) works with partners worldwide to enhance the roles that livestock play in food security and poverty alleviation, principally in Africa and Asia. The outcomes of these research partnerships help people in developing countries keep their farm animals alive and productive, increase and sustain their livestock and farm productivity, find profitable markets for their animal products, and reduce the risk of livestock-related diseases. ILRI is a not-for-profit institution with a staff of about 600 and, in 2012, an operating budget of about USD 60 million. A member of the CGIAR Consortium working for a food-secure future, ILRI has its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, a principal campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and offices in other countries in East, West and Southern Africa and in South, Southeast and East Asia.

About CGIAR: working for a food-secure future
CGIAR is a global partnership that unites organizations engaged in research for a food-secure future. It is carried out by 15 centres that are members of the CGIAR Consortium and conducted in close collaboration with hundreds of partner organizations, including national and regional research institutes, civil society organizations, academia and the private sector. The CGIAR’s 8,000 scientists and staff work in the developing world to reduce rural poverty, increase food security, improve human health and nutrition, and ensure more sustainable management of natural resources. With unparalleled research infrastructure and dynamic networks across the globe, and maintaining the world’s most comprehensive collections of genetic resources, CGIAR is the only institution with a clear mandate on science and technology development for the eradication of hunger and poverty at the global level.

Biologists in Nairobi to take part in two new animal health projects announced this week by the US National Science and Gates foundations

East Coast Fever

The National Science Foundation (NSF) of the United States announced on 12 May 2010 that the Foundation, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is awarding 15 grants worth US$20 million in support of basic research for generating sustainable solutions to big agricultural problems in developing countries.

These are the first grants in a new five-year Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development (BREAD) program, which is jointly funded by NSF and the Gates Foundation.

The awards in this first year of funding will allow leading scientists worldwide to work together in basic research testing novel and creative approaches to reducing longstanding problems faced by smallholder farmers in poor countries.

Scientists from the Nairobi, Kenya, animal health laboratories of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) will participate in 2 of the 15 projects selected among the many submitted to BREAD for funding.

Biologists at New York and Michigan State universities and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (USA), the Roslin Institute and the University of Edinburgh (UK) and ILRI (Kenya) will test a novel approach to developing cattle that are resistant to trypanosomosis, a deadly cattle disease that is closely related to sleeping sickness in humans and that holds back animal agriculture across a swath of Africa as large as continental USA.

In another project, scientists from the University of Vermont and Plum Island Animal Disease Center (USA) will work with the University of Copenhagen (Denmark) and ILRI on use of advanced genetics to develop vaccines for East Coast fever and other cattle diseases that threaten the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Go here for a 12 May 2010 news release from the US National Science Foundation:

A complete list of 2010 BREAD awards can be accessed at:

Conversion of pastures to croplands is big climate change threat

New study results are warning that the conversion of pasturelands to croplands will be the major contributor to global warming in East Africa.

Climate change threat

Climate change is a real and current threat to households and communities already struggling to survive in east Africa. Global climate modelling results indicate that the region will experience wetter and warmer conditions as well as decreases in agricultural productivity. However, results just released by the Climate Land Interaction Project (CLIP) forecast that there will be a high degree of variability within the region with some areas becoming wetter and others drier. This research provides evidence of the complex connection between regional changes in climate and changes in land cover and land use. The results forecast the conversion of vast amounts of land from grasslands to croplands over the next 40 years, with serious consequences for the environment.

Climate Land Interaction Project (CLIP)
CLIP is a joint research project of Michigan State University (MSU) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), exploring important linkages between land use/cover changes and climatic changes in east Africa.

CLIP researchers, together with the Kenyan Ministry of Environment and Mineral Resources, organised a workshop to present CLIP modelling results to key decision-makers in Kenya. The workshop, held in Nairobi, highlighted the policy and technical implications and options for climate change adaptations in Kenya.

CLIP researcher and professor at MSU, Jeffrey Andresen, warns that the erosion of east African grazing lands is a major threat facing Kenya and other east African countries. ‘Results of running these models indicate that the greatest amount of contribution to global warming in the east Africa region is not going to be motor vehicles or methane emissions from livestock or conversions of forests to pastures but rather conversion of pasturelands to croplands’ says Andresen.

Projected climate and land use changes in northern Kenya
Based on climate change scenarios (CLIP analysis and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecasts) northern Kenya will experience significant changes in rainfall and temperatures with some places becoming wetter and others drier. These changes will have dramatic impacts on ground cover and vegetation, especially the distribution and composition of grass species that form pastures for livestock and on which many people depend for their livelihoods.

Simulation models predict that areas in the remote northeast around Wajir, for example, will have greater vegetation cover and become much bushier than at present. Grazing lands are already scarce and the increasing encroachment of bush into grazing areas will create further problems for livestock keepers.

The quantity and quality of water will also be affected by the forecast changes in rainfall patterns and temperature regimes. These changes will not only affect water availability for humans and livestock but also accelerate the rate of vegetation change in different and opposite ways for different places. The ratio of tall to short grass species and closed to open vegetation, for example, depend partially on soil moisture content. It is likely that the anticipated climatic changes will greatly alter the grass ratios and these changes will then exert adverse effects on feed resources for livestock and significantly modify herd composition. In addition, traditional land management interventions, such as the use of fires and overgrazing may increase the scale, intensity and speed of these impacts.

CLIP researcher and ILRI scientist, Joseph Mworia Maitima concludes ‘Many millions of Kenyans already face severe poverty and constraints in pursuing a livelihood. But, with these projected increasing environmental stresses, they are going to become even more vulnerable.

‘It’s crucial that we now start talking about the technical and policy

Download CLIP brief

CLIP Brief: Policy implications of land climate interactions, June 2008

Related information:

Severe weather coming: Experts (Daily Nation, 13 August 2008)

Kenya: Severe weather coming – Experts (All Africa, 13 August 2008)


Joseph M. Maitima
International Livestock Research Institute
Nairobi, Kenya