Supercharged MARPLE labs to be fastest rust surveillance system in Africa
A network of Ethiopian researchers across the country are championing a new mobile lab to provide near real-time, strain-level diagnostics during wheat rust outbreaks.
Since winning the international impact category of the BBSRC innovator of the year award the MARPLE (Mobile And Real-time PLant disEase) diagnostic platform is now being established in research hubs across the wheat growing areas of Ethiopia. This marks the next step for the platform after its first trial in country just over a year ago. The UK-Ethiopian partnership hopes to have these platforms fully operational in time for the next growing season in 2020.
“Wheat yellow rust continues to cause huge losses for Ethiopian farmers,” says Diane Saunders whose lab led the creation of MARPLE diagnostics, “finally we have a proven mobile pipeline that gives us information on precisely which strain is present in a farmer’s field in near real-time. This provides the time needed to plan informed defensive responses. Our goal is now to put this technology in the hands of the researcher hubs on the ground.”
Ethiopia is the largest wheat producer in sub-Saharan Africa. Last year around 5 million households across the country produced a total of 4.6 million tonnes. However, wheat yields in Ethiopia face a constant threat of great losses to a group of fungal infections know as rusts (Puccinia spp).
Rust damaged harvests cause shock waves across the Ethiopian economy and ultimately threaten the food security of the many families reliant on the wheat industry. One of the best ways to protect these people, is to stay one step ahead of the rusts and inform control strategies for implementation before larger outbreaks can grow out of control.
The MARPLE Diagnostics platform gives researchers this chance by allowing emerging wheat yellow rust strains to be identified in the field within 2 days. This is 30 times faster than any previous method and can be conducted entirely from the mobile field lab. In response, research hubs across the country are now set to adopt this technology to form a new network of MARPLE enabled labs.
Strategically placed surveillance hubs
The new pipeline builds on an already world-leading network. Ethiopia is home to the most advanced rust prevention network in the world and MARPLE diagnostics offers a missing piece of the puzzle to strengthen this protection further. Since the end of November 2019, five strategically chosen hubs have hosted demonstrations of the mobile lab and planned further training. These research sites situated across the key wheat growing areas of Ethiopia will each receive the entire ‘suitcase-sized’ lab and full training in the pipeline.
“We’ve specifically selected these hubs to give the best coverage of the country’s most important wheat growing areas,” said CIMMYT Rust Pathologist Dave Hodson.
The first of these training events has already taken place at the EIAR National Agricultural Biotechnology Research Centre in Holeta, with the next round of training for the other 4 hubs planned in June.
“The workshop was really fascinating, it’s really an amazing that we have got the chance to become more familiar with this new latest technology so I am much interested to have such workshops again and again.” said Tsega’ab Tesfaye, EIAR Plant Pathologist, Ambo.
Powerful for Ethiopia, important for international harvests
The new MARPLE enabled labs across Ethiopia will be the fastest surveillance network in Africa, able to identify new rust strains at the field site. This is not only important for Ethiopia, but for the entire region, as the country is seen as a key gateway for new yellow rust strains moving into East Africa. This makes the Ethiopian MARPLE network also valuable to farmers in neighboring countries who will get an early indication of new strains on their way.
But rust is just the first step. While designed initially for yellow rust, the MARPLE Diagnostics pipeline is not limited to solely fungal diseases. Ethiopian researchers are already interested in adapting the pipeline to identify other emerging viral and bacterial diseases that threaten African crop harvests.
” I want to say that this country has a better early warning system but to add race specific information or viral specific information for early warning, this technology is premium. ” said Tamrat Negash, pathologist, Kulumpsa Agricultural Centre.
The success of the project to date has been the result of strong international collaboration between the Ethiopian Institute of Agriculture, John Innes Centre and CIMMYT. The MinION sequencing device is the work of Oxford Nanopore.
This project was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), CGIAR Big Data Platform Inspire Challenge and the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat Project led by Cornell University International Programs that is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Bill & Melinda & Gates Foundation. Communication support was provided by the BBSRC Excellence with Impact Award to JIC.
The first MARPLE training workshop at Holeta. The mobile lab suitcase is in the foreground
Lab training in Holeta
Meeting the researchers at Ambo
Demonstrating the MARPLE platform in Kulumsa
Yoseph Alemayehu taking rust samples in the fields at Sinana