Tackling vector-borne plant diseases in Africa

The University of Bristol has reported that it has been awarded £2m to lead a major new project that aims to tackle the devastation caused by vector-borne plant diseases in Africa.

In much the same way as insects can transmit human diseases, destructive plant diseases are transmitted by aphids, beetles, whitefly and other insects. These act as vectors of plant viruses and spread disease by moving between plants in a field.

Smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa grow a range of crops to feed their families. Vector-borne plant viruses are a significant constraint on staple and cash crops such as cassava, sweet potato, maize and yam. Limiting crop production causes food insecurity, malnutrition and poverty, all of which hinder economic and social development. The emergence of new viral diseases and the environmental fluctuations of climate change together with resource limitation and population growth will also acutely impact this region of the world.

Professor Gary Foster and his team from the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences have long been recognised as world leading in the area of plant virology and vector-transmitted diseases, with particular interest in food security. As such, he has been awarded a £2m Vector-borne Disease Network grant, funded by the UK Government Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) which supports research on global issues that affect developing countries. The funding will be used to build a sustainable network of scientists and researchers to address the challenges of vector-borne plant viruses in Africa. The grant will provide pump prime funding for a wide range of research projects, run meetings, workshops, seminars and networking events to strengthen international research capacity and methodologies in plant virus vector research.

The CONNECTED project has a multidisciplinary management board, chaired by the UK’s Chief Plant Health Officer, Professor Nicola Spence, and comprises UK and Africa-based experts in vector-borne plant disease, sustainability, social and environmental science, and agricultural impact.

Gary Foster said “This breadth of expertise enables the management board to establish cutting edge research projects together with practical advice for farmers, plant health certification schemes and policy initiatives in Africa. From the outset, the management board will engage with established networks, stakeholders and funders in Africa to define research targets. There will be a series of question setting workshops to explore research priorities in the key areas of disease control strategies, vector biology, new diseases, vector-virus interactions and diagnostics/surveillance/forecasting.”

Project Co-director, Dr Neil Boonham, from Newcastle University, said “Insect transmitted plant diseases are one of the major constraints for food security and economic growth in the agricultural sector in sub-Saharan Africa. They impact commercial, small holder and subsistence farmers but it is the poorest and most vulnerable that are at the greatest risk. Until now, much of the work in this area has been relatively un-coordinated. Our GCRF network CONNECTED seeks to provide leadership, bringing together academic and industry partners with funders to map the research landscape, identify research gaps and facilitate the formation of new interdisciplinary collaborations.”

Grant writing workshops will support researchers in their application for pump prime funding for a range of research projects with particular emphasis on early career researchers. CONNECTED will also run a series of meetings, training courses, seminars and networking events in both the UK and Africa with the aim of promoting interdisciplinary working and strengthening research capacity and capability. Together with the outputs of the pump prime funding, this will enable researchers to apply for further funding from national and international funding organisations.

The project will be support by a new team within the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences. A network manager, a communications officer and an executive admin assistant will work together to co-ordinate the CONNECTED network. The University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute, of which Gary Foster is a member, will also provide input and expertise. Gary Foster said “The most important part of a network is its people. CONNECTED aims to create a wide ranging and sustainable network. Anyone with an interest in African plant virus vector-borne disease can become a network member.”

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