Ethiopians can distinguish enset varieties by sight, but genetically these cousins of banana are very similar
Enset, an important food and traditional medicine crop that should be protected, has many varieties according to Ethiopian locals, but researchers found few genetic differences between these “landraces”.
“Landraces” are visually distinct varieties of plants or animals. In Ethiopia, various enset landraces are used as traditional medicines for repairing broken bones, treating liver disease, or treating diarrhoea. Others are used for food, animal feed and fibre - the plant is not grown for its fruit, but parts of the stem may be eaten. Unfortunately, medicinal enset is more at risk of being lost as a crop than other, more widely-cultivated food varieties because of socio-economic changes and a loss of indigenous knowledge.
Previous studies on enset looked at plants from specific locations, but in this study, researchers investigated the genetic diversity of medicinal enset specifically, as well as the genetic relationships between landraces. By better understanding enset genetics, scientists can make more informed conservation decisions to preserve these culturally- and materially-valuable plants.
To identify important landraces, researchers consulted village elders in four different locations in Ethiopia. They compared the genetics of these medicinal landraces to each other and to a sample of non-medicinal landraces used for food.
Interestingly, the researchers found that while there were variations among individual plants, food and medicinal enset plants were not very genetically distinct from one another. There was also no evidence to suggest that landraces with different local names, but which are used to treat the same disease, form distinct genetic groups. That said, the researchers did notice closer genetic ties between plants identified by a particular vernacular name, which means local people have an excellent ability to visually identify, and distinguish between, specific landraces.
These findings add to a growing body of knowledge on enset genetics, which helps conservation efforts to distinguish between medicinally important landraces. This genetic information may also help other researchers investigate the medicinal properties of enset in future.
The researchers suggested several potential reasons for the genetic similarities they found. For example, it’s possible that all enset plants have some degree of medicinal value, but certain landraces are preferred for cultural reasons. It’s also possible that the medicinal value of certain plants is tied to their environment, with plants developing unique medicinal properties only under certain growing conditions.
In future, comparing the biochemical properties of different landraces may unlock deeper insights into their ultimate medicinal value.
This study formed part of a larger collaboration between UK and Africa-based researchers aimed at improving food security and understanding the pharmaceutical potential of the enset plant.
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Background: Enset (Ensete ventricosum) is a multipurpose crop extensively cultivated in southern and southwestern Ethiopia for human food, animal feed and fiber. It contributes to the food security and rural livelihoods of 20 million people. Several distinct enset landraces are cultivated for their uses in traditional medicine. Socio-economic changes and the loss of indigenous knowledge might lead to the decline of important medicinal landraces and their associated genetic diversity. However, it is currently unknown whether medicinal landraces are genetically differentiated from other landraces. Here, we characterize the genetic diversity of medicinal enset landraces to support effective conservation and utilization of their diversity
Results: We evaluated the genetic diversity of 51 enset landraces of which 38 have reported medicinal value. A total of 38 alleles were detected across the 15 SSR loci. AMOVA revealed that 97.6% of the total genetic variation is among individual with an FST of 0.024 between medicinal and non-medicinal landraces. A neighbor-joining tree showed four separate clusters with no correlation to the use values of the landraces. Principal coordinate analysis also confirmed the absence of distinct clustering between the groups, showing low differentiation among landraces used in traditional medicine and those having other use values.
Conclusion: We found that enset landraces were clustered irrespective of their use value, showing no evidence for genetic differentiation between enset grown for ‘medicinal’ uses and non-medicinal landraces. This suggests that enset medicinal properties may be restricted to a more limited number of genotypes, a product of interaction with the environment or management practice, or partly misreported. The study provide baseline information that promotes further investigations in exploiting the medicinal value of these specific landraces.
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