Saving the Iconic Coconut through Long-Term Capacity Building
Over the first half of 2019, members of the Hogenhout lab, John Innes Centre joined the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) and Pwani University Bioscience Research Centre (PUBReC) to create a novel partnership to tackle emerging phytoplasma-associated plant diseases in Kenya. The Joint UK-Kenya Phytoplasma Research Initiative will provide a platform from which to mitigate the considerable damage caused by these insect-vectored pathogens across East Africa.
East-African agriculture is dominated by small-holder farmers who rely heavily on the success of this season’s crop for their nutritional needs and economic security. When emerging pathogens threaten this security, authorities rely on robust surveillance and mitigation strategies to act swiftly and appropriately.
Phytoplasma are bacterial plant pathogens and are transmitted by sap-feeding insects, mainly planthoppers and leafhoppers. Infection often leads to substantial loss of fruit, causing great hardship to farmers.
Gaining support from Biomaker-OpenPlant Challenge
Through the support provided by a successful Biomaker-OpenPlant Challenge bid, the team, with partners from Cambridge University and the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) will provide the scientific backing required for immediate and effective intervention in areas most affected by phytoplasma.
The aim of the initiative is to reinforce and compliment current efforts by Kenyan authorities, led by KEPHIS, via the deployment of genomics-based pathogen surveillance, providing vital diagnostic tools and disease management strategies.
James Canham, a PhD student at the John Innes Centre met with KEPHIS officials in Nairobi and Mombasa including the General Manager Dr Isaac Macharia and Officer-in-Charge Florence Munguti to begin formulating the platform.
The initiative has already begun to increase its capacity by enrolling a master’s student, supported by the co-supervision of Pwani University researchers Professor Santie de Villiers and Dr Rose Kigathi and KEPHIS Mombasa Regional Manager, Josiah Syanda. The student will focus primarily on this emerging pathogen and studies will be conducted in close collaboration with UK-based researchers.
But why coconut?
Acting not only as a pilot study to test the initiative and implement newly-formed pipelines, coconut holds tremendous importance both culturally and economically in coastal regions of East Africa. Phytoplasma diseases of coconut or coconut lethal yellowing disease is common across tropical regions and outbreaks are often unpredictable and severe.
Once a coconut is infected, they often lose their fruit before ripening. As the disease progresses, leaves become chlorotic (hence ‘yellowing’) and typically fall off. The plant can no longer reproduce and dies (hence ‘lethal’) leaving a characteristic pole devoid of green vegetation.
Although Kenyan agriculture is not plagued by these phytoplasma currently, reports of severe outbreaks from neighbouring Mozambique and Tanzania are a growing concern for local authorities mandated to protect against such disease outbreaks.
Using PIPS to establish long-term projects
During a BBSRC PIPS placement based at Pwani University, and supported by ACACIA and the John Innes Centre International Office, James investigated potential collaborative opportunities between UK and Kenyan institutes and individuals. As a result of this placement, several partnerships have emerged and will be developed in the future.