African Sweet Potato Devastation: BTI Research to Expand Understanding of Viruses

by | Mar 6, 2012

Zhangjun FeiAn international team of scientists lead by Dr. Fei at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research received a $700,000 grant for research that will expand our understanding of viruses that cause devastating losses of sweet potato crops in Africa.

They are using a novel approach – deep sequencing of small RNA molecules from field-grown sweet potato – to systematically identify viral genome sequences. The research will generate and link patterns of viruses with disease symptoms, epidemics and management strategies in sub-Saharan Africa.

The team is led by Zhangjun Fei, an assistant scientist at BTI, and includes researchers from the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, along with scientific partners in Africa.

Their award comes through the BREAD program, a partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Science Foundation connect advanced research expertise with the developing world.

The team will collect a total of approximately 1,750 samples of sweet potatoes from more than 10 African countries, then use high throughput next-generation sequencing technology to identify known and novel sweet potato viruses.

“To date, there are only about 20 viruses identified for sweet potatoes because traditional technologies to identify the viruses are very slow,” Fei explained. “We’re using the next generation sequencing technology to identify much more. It will allow us to see the diversity and evolution of the viruses.”

Sweet potato is among the most important food crops in the world and an extremely important crop for subsistence farmers in Africa, but this vegetatively propagated crop suffers from cultivar decline mainly due to virus infection.

This same technology can be applied to other major crop plants in Africa including maize, rice, tomato, bean, and cassava. Providing this type of information will give the scientific community and governments unprecedented possibilities to understand crop virus distribution in Africa, predict risks of future epidemics, and develop regional disease management strategies.

For more on the Fei Lab

The Boyce Thompson Institute is an independent affiliate of Cornell University dedicated to basic plant research.

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