Disease Control / ECF / Film and video / Genetics / ILRI / Kenya / Research / Zoonotic Diseases

Driven by technology, (finally) embracing diversity: A geneticist’s views on the evolution of biotech research at ILRI

For the November 2011 ‘liveSTOCK Exchange’ event at ILRI, Steve Kemp, a livestock molecular geneticist, reflects on the evolution of ILRI’s research agenda and the role of biotechnology research in that agenda . . .

Steve Kemp first came to the Nairobi campus of the International Livestock research Institute (ILRI) in 1985 when it was (literally) another institute, known as the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases (ILRAD). ILRAD was one of two institutions formed in Africa in the early 1970s that joined to become ILRI in 1995 (the other was the International Livestock Centre for Africa, ILCA, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia).

Kemp left ILRAD just as the amalgamation with ILCA took place, in 1995, to return to the University of Liverpool, where he worked for the next ten years. He came back to ILRI in 2005 to again work in the Nairobi animal disease laboratories. And on his return he ‘found a very different place’.

ILRAD had focused almost exclusively on improving control of two major protozoan animal diseases of Africa: East Coast fever, caused by the tick-borne parasite Theileria parva, and African animal trypanosomosis, an animal form of human sleeping sickness, caused by tsetse-borne trypanosome parasites. Kemp has spent his professional life working on the latter, looking into the molecular biology of genetic resistance to trypanosomosis displayed by some ancient native African livestock breeds. The objective of his research has been to, first, locate the genes that control this useful disease resistance trait, and then to make better and wider use of those genes to protect more of Africa’s stock from this wasting illness, which is arguably the most economically devastating of the continent’s livestock diseases.

When Kemp returned to the ILRAD, now ILRI, Nairobi laboratories in 2005, he found a very different place. The veterinary vaccine developers in the ‘wet’ laboratories were now surrounded by other kinds of ‘dry-lab’ scientists, from livestock breeders and other kinds of ‘whole animal’ livestock scientists to rangeland specialists, landscape ecologists and agricultural systems analysts and economists—’even’ sociologists.

This was not, as Kemp admits, an easy passage for him. Much of the strength and reputation of ILRAD’s animal disease work had been eroded in the transition from ILRAD to ILRI, and it was easy to put the blame on the wider research agenda that ILRI was now, perhaps too ambitiously, pursuing, with the result that biotechnology expertise was being diluted. Getting used to working in an ‘integrated’ research environment, Kemp says, where biotechnology plays only a part in a greater research agenda, took getting used to.

What’s interesting is that Kemp’s own research area—the genetics of animal disease resistance—had been doing a lot of its own integrating as the gene and information revolutions took hold, with their rapid advances exploding with whole-genome sequencing and other transformative technologies, necessitating the absorption of new kinds of specialists such as bioinformaticians and opening the door to direct relevant work with medical researchers, ecologists and others. Kemp leads international research groups now at the very forefront of this fast-changing multidisciplinary frontier.

Kemp says he has come round to seeing the value of working within an even more broadly integrated research portfolio, and will be spending even more of his time in the near future on human as well as animal health issues. And who knows where that may lead him over the next decade . . . .

Watch the 4-minute interview with Steve Kemp.


On 9 and 10 November 2011, the ILRI Board of Trustees hosted a 2-day ‘liveSTOCK Exchange’ to discuss and reflect on livestock research for development. The event synthesized sector and ILRI learning and helped frame future livestock research for development directions.

The liveSTOCK Exchange also marked the leadership and contributions of Dr. Carlos Seré as ILRI Director General. See all posts in this series / Sign up for email alerts

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