By George Munene
The Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) in Njoro has established a diagnostics hub that enables local researchers to identify yellow rust strains– diseases that reduce grain yields by 30 – 80 per cent– within two days of collecting samples. This process previously took three to 12 months and was reliant on sending samples overseas.
Historically, the most dangerous and devastating disease on wheat has been stem rust. Wheat yellow rust alone can reduce grain yields by up to 80 per cent and is responsible for annual losses of around 5.47 million tonnes.
The hub is part of MARPLE (Mobile And Real-time PLant disEase) pipeline– a portable testing lab that provides real-time, point-of-care plant disease diagnostics and surveillance for complex fungal pathogens.
This means that Kenyan researchers can carry out sequencing on location and identify rust strains in as little as two days. The new mobile lab is designed to deliver these results on unstable power supply and without reliance on internet access – both features that make MARPLE accessible for field labs.
“This new diagnostic technique, is a game-changer for us and our country – because we can use it to encourage timely control measures for new races of rust out there”, said KALRO Njoro researcher Dr. Zennah Kosgey at the hub’s launch on Thursday.
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Rusts are a type of fungal disease that can infect many crops and spread large distances on the wind. Farmers protect their wheat crops against infection through effective disease management, including planting rust-resistant varieties and applying appropriate fungicides. Over time, however, new rust strains diversify that can overcome resistant varieties, or the fungus itself might become resistant to local fungicide applications.
Early identification of new strains and using this information to plan control strategies before the infection spreads is key to protecting farmers’ crops against rust damage.
The Njoro hub marks the third of its kind globally, following the opening of the initial Ethiopian hub and a South Asian hub in Nepal in early 2022.
The platform will improve global rust surveillance as East Africa is a key location for both new rust strains entering the continent and new strains diversifying and moving to the Middle East. Protecting farmers’ harvests relies on understanding this flow of races across continents.
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Researchers from the John Innes Centre and International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) launched the new Njoro hub by training 17 plant pathologists in the MARPLE pipeline. Participants comprised researchers from both KALRO and the PlantVillage Dream Team.
MARPLE Diagnostics was developed by the Saunders Lab at the John Innes Centre in collaboration with CIMMYT. The project is currently funded by USAID through PlantVillage and BBSRC.