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Substantial investment to tackle challenges of African vector-borne plant diseases

Whitefly on leaf

Farmer harvesting yam

Healthy maize plants

5 October 2017

The University of Bristol has been awarded £2million to lead a major new project that aims to tackle the huge challenges caused by vector-borne plant diseases in Africa.

In much the same way as insects can transmit human diseases, devastating plant diseases are transmitted by aphids, beetles, whitefly and other insects.

These act as vectors of plant viruses and spread disease by moving between plants in a field.

Smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa grow a range of crops to feed their families.

Vector-borne plant viruses are a significant constraint on staple and cash crops such as cassava, sweet potato, maize and yam.

Limiting crop production causes food insecurity, malnutrition and poverty, all of which hinder economic and social development.

The emergence of new viral diseases and the environmental fluctuations of climate change together with resource limitation and population growth will also acutely impact this region of the world.

Professor Gary Foster and his team from the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences have long been recognised as world-leading in the area of plant virology and vector-transmitted diseases, with particular interest in food security.

As such, he has been awarded a £2million Vector-borne Disease Network grant, funded by the UK government Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) which supports research on global issues that affect developing countries.

The funding will be used to establish CONNECTED: a sustainable network of scientists and researchers addressing the challenges of vector-borne plant viruses in Africa.

Specifically, the grant will provide pump-prime funding for a wide range of research projects, run meetings, workshops, seminars and networking events, in both the UK and Africa, strengthening international research capacity and methodologies in plant virus vector research.

Professor Foster said: “The award of this grant will allow us to establish cutting edge research projects, together with practical advice for farmers, plant health certification schemes and policy initiatives in Africa.

“From the outset, we will engage with established networks, stakeholders and funders in Africa to define research targets.

“There will be a series of question-setting workshops to explore research priorities in the key areas of disease control strategies, vector biology, new diseases, vector-virus interactions and diagnostics/surveillance/forecasting.”

Professor Foster, as Director, and Professor Neil Boonham from Newcastle University, as Co-Director, will be supported in their roles by a new team within Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences.

The project will also be supported by the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute, forming a significant component of its ‘Food Security’ research theme.

Speaking of the importance of CONNECTED to the Cabot Institute, its manager, Hayley Shaw, said “Our Food Security theme fosters collaborative multidisciplinary research, drawing upon the combined expertise of all its members.

“We are delighted to have the CONNECTED network as part of our Food Security research theme and eagerly anticipate the mutually-beneficial knowledge transfer and collaborations this will bring.”

Professor Foster added: “The most important part of a network is its people. CONNECTED aims to create a wide ranging and sustainable network. We welcome any researchers with an interest in African plant virus vector-borne disease to become a network member.”