12:00am Thursday 20 February 2020

University scientists working to stop spread of deadly African crop virus


The cassava plant is a vital food for millions in Africa

Experts at the Natural Resources Institute, based at the university’s Medway Campus, are busy researching different varieties of cassava plant – an annual crop which provides food for more than 200 million people in Africa. The scientists’ aim is to find cassava varieties that have the best resistance to the viruses causing brown streak disease in the plant.

One of the world’s seven most dangerous plant crop diseases, cassava brown streak disease can cause total losses of the cassava crop, with potentially devastating consequences for those who rely on it as a major source of food.

UN scientists have warned that a virus attacking the cassava plant is nearing an epidemic in parts of Africa. As highlighted by the BBC on 17 November, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization is urging that action is taken immediately to help resolve the problem.

Cassava is essential because it can be grown all year round and provides valuable food in periods when other food staples are not available. Its edible, starchy tuberous root is a major source of carbohydrates, and it is better equipped than many crops to resist the effects of climate change as it can withstand drought and grow in poor soils.

Using the latest state-of-the art genetic quantification techniques, a team led by Dr Maruthi Gowda at the university’s Natural Resources Institute (NRI) has made an important breakthrough. The team has identified cassava varieties in which the amount of virus is just one per cent of that found in some of the susceptible cassava varieties currently being grown in East Africa.

This virus was first identified during a collaborative project between scientists Dr Susan Seal and Dr Rory Hillocks at NRI, and Professor Gary Foster at the University of Bristol. Subsequently Dr Maruthi Gowda, Dr Rory Hillocks and Professor John Colvin (also from NRI) were the first to identify the elusive vector of the disease: a tiny whitefly, just one millimetre in size.

The NRI’s scientists have also developed practical control measures and cost-effective, cutting-edge technologies for accurate virus diagnosis, essential for African scientists to use in their local laboratories. These diagnostic tests and knowledge of CBSD (cassava brown streak disease) epidemiology have been vital in the fight to prevent CBSD spread and in developing resistant varieties.

Scientists from NRI are active members of several international consortia that coordinate research efforts on cassava viruses to minimise their devastating impact on food security in African cassava growing regions.

The research on cassava carried out at NRI has long been recognised as providing major breakthroughs, as highlighted in the UK Government’s report Perspectives on Pests: achievements of research under the UK Department for International Development’s crop protection programme, 1996-2000.

NRI is also involved in several other large international projects, funded by the European Commission and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to improve the livelihoods and incomes of smallholder households in Africa who rely on cassava.

For more details of the work of the Natural Resources Institute, please see www.nri.org

Story by Public Relations

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