Student Success – Maize Lethal Necrosis

Student Success – Maize Lethal Necrosis

Victoria Bulegeya is an iAGRI-funded student pursuing an M.Sc. in Agriculture at Ohio State University’s Department of Horticulture and Crop Science at the College of Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES). Victoria completed a B.Sc. Environmental Science and Management at Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA). At SUA, her coursework included chemistry, entomology, statistics, and microbiology. With a 3.9 GPA, she was a prime candidate to receive an iAGRI scholarship. Victoria is now one of 135 students sponsored by the Innovative Agricultural Research Initiative (iAGRI) to pursue advanced degrees and training in the agricultural sciences. iAGRI is supported by USAID Tanzania under the Feed the Future initiative.

A serious outbreak of the disease occurred in September 2011 in Kenya’s Rift Valley. In Kenya, outbreaks of the disease result in significant losses. “Maize lethal necrosis is just what it sounds like,” stated Prof. Redinbaugh, Victoria’s US-based supervisor. “The disease affects maize, it dries out the leaves. Then it causes the entire plant to die. It’s a devastating disease when it comes into a maize crop.”

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Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN) infected flower (Photo credit: IITA/Catherine Njuguna)

In 2012, yield losses in certain areas reached 90%. The severity and widespread damage caused by the disease in Kenya resulted in grain loss of 126,000 metric tons valued at 52 million USD. Four years after devastating crops in Kenya, the disease has been reported in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan and Ethiopia, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania. In Tanzania, maize lethal necrosis (MLN) has spread to several areas close to the Kenya-Tanzania border, Arusha, and Mwanza. Further complicating transmission rates, MLN can be stored in soil as well as transported on contaminated seed. “In this part of the world, there are so many threats to food security. Scientists can make an impact not only in terms of resources, but also on how policymakers address the disease. This research can literally impact millions of people,” added iAGRI Director, Dave Kraybill.

Maize lethal necrosis is a synergistic combination of two viruses, maize chlorotic mottle virus (MCMV) and any other virus in the Potyviridae group. Victoria’s research focuses on the latter. Her abstract is entitled The Effect of Potyvirus Resistance on Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN) Disease. A combination of insects transmitting the virus and suitable environmental conditions make the disease ideally suited for outbreaks on East African maize.

In sub-Saharan Africa, Tanzania is second only to Nigeria in maize acreage. Maize is a staple food crop for millions of Tanzanians. In terms of nutrition, maize provides 60% of daily calories and 35% of protein in Tanzania. While some sources of resistance have been identified in yellow varieties, white varieties are more popular in East African markets and especially in staple food dishes in Tanzania such as ugali. For these reasons, Victoria’s work has centered on how to breed sources of resistance for white maize. Given the importance of maize – and especially white maize in Tanzania – Victoria is confident that her work will have an impact on the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.  “When you think about Victoria’s work, you can really see how a scientist can have a huge impact on food security, not only in a country or a region, but across a continent,” added Kraybill.

At OSU, Victoria engaged in coursework combining molecular biology, biotechnology, and plant breeding. Victoria also spent time in the laboratory at OSU developing skill in plant breeding, molecular marker analysis and screening for virus resistance. Her studies have been augmented by an internship at CIMMYT-Kenya in Nairobi. There, she continued her work, expanding her knowledge of new approaches being developed to tackle the disease. Upon returning to SUA, Victoria engaged in leadership training covering issues such as time management, effective communications, and goal setting. The combination of her research skills, training, and knowledge of the local context have prepared Victoria for advanced research in her field.

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Peg Redinbaugh visiting Victoria Bulegeya at iAGRI in Morogoro, Tanzania

Peg Redinbaugh leads the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agricultural Research Service (ARS) program on virus diseases in maize. Both Prof. Redingbaugh and Dr. David Francis served as Victoria’s supervisors and mentors during her coursework at OSU. Dr. George Muhamba is a lecturer in the Department of Crop Science at SUA served as her supervisor in Tanzania. Because of the importance of the disease and its impact on global food security, Victoria’s research on MLN  contributes to work supported by international partnerships with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Ohio State University (OSU), and USDA, ARS.

In addition to her academic supervisors, Victoria was also selected as a Borlaug Leadership Enhancement in Agriculture Program (LEAP) Fellow. The Fellowship is awarded each year to outstanding graduate students who show strong promise as leaders in the field of agriculture and related disciplines. Through the fellowship, Victoria also works with a CGIAR mentor, Dr. Biswanath Das, a maize breeder based at CIMMYT-Kenya. The partnerships Victoria is developing both as an iAGRI-funded student and as a Borlaug LEAP Fellow will provide her with significant opportunities to pursue collaborative research projects in the future.

Victoria is employed as a Research Officer at the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries at the Ilonga Agriculture Research Institute. Eventually, she hopes to pursue a PhD in plant breeding. “This training will help me improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Tanzania and it will help me become a more productive research scientist.”