International partnership on Cassava virus evolution launched in Africa

Group photo at NSF-PIRES project launch at the BecA-ILRI Hub, Nairobi

NAIROBI 26 February 2016—An international partnership to tackle plant viral diseases in Africa was this week launched at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research (BecA-ILRI Hub), in Nairobi, Kenya.

Established with funding from the National Science Foundation Partnerships for International Research and Education (NSF-PIRES), the partnership brings together scientists from East Africa and US to focus on tackling the Cassava mosaic disease (CMD).

Project principal investigator (PI) Linda Hanley-Bowdoin from North Carolina State University, US expressed her optimism that the partnership was the beginning of more collaborative research projects. ‘This project might be studying the cassava virus, but it is really about building international research relationships,’ she said.

The BecA-ILRI Hub director, Appolinaire Djikeng, noted that the collaboration aligned with the Hub’s strategy to harness international partnerships to benefit the African agricultural research agenda. ‘The BecA-ILRI Hub is a magnet for African and international scientists to conduct and use of high-end biosciences research in Africa, for Africa,’ he said. ‘This partnership is a good example of north-south and  south-south collaborations coming to address an issue of importance to Africa,’ he added.

Cassava is staple food for over 250 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.  Caused by Cassava mosaic virus (CMV), CMD is responsible for between 12 and 23 million tonnes crop yield losses (15-24% of total production) in Africa. The project will be studying the evolution of the Cassava mosaic virus. The virus' changes over time have enabled it to adapt to different environmental conditions and break plant resistance, confounding efforts to combat CMD.

‘This will be one of the most detailed studies on the evolution of any virus ever conducted,’ said Sioban Duffy of Rutgers University, US, who is a co-PI of the project. ‘Our research could lead to ground breaking discoveries on other viruses with significant economic and health impacts like the dengue virus’ she added.

Tanzanian scientist Joseph Ndunguru who has spent many years in cassava research emphasized that it is not only the science community that stands to benefit from the research. ‘A better understanding of the virus will help us develop diagnostic tools for use by smallholder farmers—they are the ones who should benefit the most from our research,’ he said.

In addition to providing training and capacity building for African researchers, the new project will enable early career US scientists to work with researchers at the BecA-ILRI Hub and MARI.

‘Through this project, budding US scientists will have an opportunity to work with outstanding scientists in Africa,’ said George Kennedy from NCSU who is also co-PI. ‘We hope that their experience will inspire them to pursue international research and be a part of the global workforce that is contributing to the resolution of the world food shortage,’ he added.

Participating institutions include Auburn University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, North Carolina State University and Rutgers University in US; the BecA-ILRI Hub, Kenya; and the Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute (MARI) and Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology, Tanzania.

View pictures from the project launch here.

Read related story: $5 Million NSF PIRE Grant Will Fund Research on African Crop Disease

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