Searching for the solution to stem rust in Kenya

A highly virulent strain of the stem rust pathogen, known as Ug99, is causing massive yield losses of wheat in Africa and the Middle East.

A highly virulent strain of the stem rust pathogen, known as Ug99, is causing massive yield losses of wheat in Africa and the Middle East. The worst epidemics are in eastern Africa, where Ug99 continues to mutate and poses a threat to food security.

Cyrus Kimani Ndung’U, a Kenyan scholar with the Borlaug Higher Education for Agricultural Research and Development (BHEARD) program, is searching for wheat genes that are resistant to Ug99. His ultimate goal is to find genetic mechanisms of resistance to the pathogen, in order to develop molecular markers that can help guide breeders in the selection of resistant cultivars.

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

Via BHEARD, Ndung’U is pursuing a Ph.D. in Applied Plant Science (Plant Breeding and Molecular Genetics) at the University of Minnesota. He’s noticed that, though there is a lot of plant research going on in Kenya, molecular genetics and genomics tools are rarely used. He believes greater use of these tools could solve many of his country’s crop production challenges.

Before he came to the United States, Ndung’U worked as a research assistant for the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project, an international collaboration housed at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation’s (KALRO) Food Crops Research Center. Ndung’U did field phenotyping and genotyping work at KALRO, where research on combating stem rust has become a major priority. He also performed diagnostic work on pathogens in other crops, particularly virus detection in banana and sweet potato.

When he moved to the United States, Ndung’U faced a new cultural and academic climate. It was challenging, but he learned to adjust. He recently presented a poster at the Plant and Animal Genome Conference in San Diego, California. The title of his presentation was, “Association Mapping of Stem Rust Resistance in Minnesota Spring Wheat Lines.”

Ndung’U plans to finish his studies at the University of Minnesota by August 2018, and to return to Kenya for his final dissertation year. He will go back to KALRO as a research scientist, where he plans to study plant and microbial molecular biology and the application of new tools like CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing in plant breeding. He also plans to seek funding to strengthen a mentorship program he has started – a program aimed at teaching scientists and students more about plant molecular biology and bioinformatics techniques.

Ndung’U’s ultimate goal is to enhance food security in Kenya and beyond. He wants to acquire all the knowledge and skills he can from his Ph.D. program, so he can strengthen molecular genetics and genomics research at home and expedite the search for a solution to the destructive Ug99 strain. He also wants to loosen the constraints that affect the productivity of other crops, including soybean, sorghum, maize, cassava and sweet potato.

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