Onions hold key to plant disease management for Cambodian scholar

Tho Kim Eang, a scholar with the BHEARD program, wants to become one of the experts who manage Cambodia’s plant diseases, thereby increasing food security and reducing poverty in his home country.

Tho Kim Eang

Plant diseases are a major limiting factor for crop production and food security in Cambodia. Part of the problem is that the resources and human expertise needed to manage the diseases are in limited supply.

Tho Kim Eang, a scholar with the Borlaug Higher Education for Agricultural Research and Development (BHEARD) program, wants to become one of the experts who manage Cambodia’s plant diseases, thereby increasing food security and reducing poverty in his home country.

The goal of BHEARD, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is to develop agricultural scientists and increase agricultural research capacity in its 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.”

Having grown up on a rural farm, Tho’s long-term goal is to become a competent researcher and lecturer, ultimately helping to improve the productive capacity of Cambodian agriculture. More specifically, he wants to compile lists of strategic agricultural crops, their diseases and their control options – information that will have important ramifications for the country’s quarantine and exporting procedures.

Tho is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in plant pathology at Michigan State University (MSU). His research topic is bacterial disease management in onion. He is studying the bacterial species infecting onions, their virulence on plants and bulbs, their epidemiology, their resistance to copper, and the mechanism of disease resistance exhibited by resistant cultivars – all with the goal of better understanding bacterial disease pathogens so he can figure out how to control them.

Mary Hausbeck, an MSU professor and Tho’s academic mentor, said he’s focusing on onions because that crop is grown in both Michigan and Cambodia. As part of Hausbeck’s lab, Tho worked directly with the Michigan onion industry to better understand bacterial leaf blight, a prevalent disease in the state’s growing regions. He took samples from multiple fields and identified and characterized various pathogens. He tested different cultivars and their susceptibility to bacterial leaf blight. The knowledge and research techniques he gained at MSU will help him survey onion crops and develop disease management strategies back home, Hausbeck said.

Tho returned to Cambodia in December 2016, where he’s continuing his Ph.D. research on the evaluation of onion cultivars for their adaptability and resistance to bacterial disease infection. One particular limitation he’s facing at home is a shortage of laboratory equipment and supplies. It can take days or weeks for the necessary items to be delivered. The lack of good equipment and facilities lengthens the time required for each experiment, he said.

After earning his Ph.D., Tho plans to go back to work as an associate chair in the Department of Crop Production at the Royal University of Agriculture in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city.

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