BHEARD scholar battles stem borer in Liberia

Rice is a daily staple in Liberia. Any threat to rice is a threat to the country's farmers and consumers, and thus its food security.

Rice is a daily staple in Liberia. Any threat to rice is a threat to the country’s farmers and consumers, and thus its food security.

Irene Kargbo, a scholar with the Borlaug Higher Education for Agricultural Research and Development (BHEARD) program, is studying ways to contest one of those threats: the stem borer, an insect pest that substantially reduces rice yields. Her mission is to properly identify stem borer species in Liberia and find the best ways to manage them.

The goal of BHEARD, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is to develop agricultural scientists and increase agricultural research capacity in partner countries. The program is named after Dr. Norman Borlaug, an American biologist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate who has been called “the father of the Green Revolution.”

Kargbo is currently a Ph.D. student at Ohio State University. Her dissertation, supervised by Dr. Luis A. Cañas of the United States and Dr. Inoussa Akintayo of Liberia, focuses on identifying rice stem borer species in Liberia and evaluating the efficacy of Metarhizium anisopliae for their management.

Metarhizium anisopliae is a fungus that grows naturally in soils and causes disease in various insects by acting as a parasitoid. Produced as a fungal pesticide in the United States, South Africa and Australia, Metarhizium anisopliae is used to control roughly 200 insect species. After being sprayed on crops, the fungal pesticide grows inside the target insect's body and feeds on its internal tissue until it dies. Even after the insect is killed, the mold continues to produce millions of infective spores that are released into the environment.

The dozens of Metarhizium-based pesticides on the market are inexpensive to produce and environmentally friendly, and strains of the Metarhizium fungus can be trained to be species-specific, so they do no harm to non-target insects.

With support from a USDA grant, Kargbo is planning a visit to Zamorano University in Honduras, where she will learn how to mass produce the fungus and transfer the technology to Liberia. If everything goes according to plan, Liberia and other developing countries in Africa will use the fungal pesticide to manage rice stem borers on a large scale.

But before they can be managed, stem borer species must be identified and characterized. To do that, Kargbo recently traveled to four rice-growing areas in Liberia, where she collected and identified stem borer samples. Those species that couldn’t be identified were preserved and brought to the United States (where tools like DNA extraction will be used to identify them).

Kargbo, who expects to earn a Ph.D. in entomology by spring 2019, will return to Liberia in spring 2018, where she will conduct field trials for her final dissertation research. As a research entomologist at Liberia’s Central Agricultural Research Institute, she will work closely with farmers, farmer organizations and other stakeholders to solve insect problems.

“As a BHEARD scholar, I am extremely fortunate to have this wonderful opportunity in gaining support to enable me to achieve my career goals,” Kargbo said. “Also, I could not have been as successful as I am right now without the patience and willingness of my advisor and mentors at the Ohio State University.”

 – Matt Milkovich

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