MSI Crop Science: Support for Genetic Studies of Beans and Cassava

by Alan Anderson
4 August 2010
Among the many other NCRRI priorities supported by MSI are efforts to combat diseases of beans and cassava. Beans are valued for their high content of protein and other nutrients, and cassava has long been a staple because of its ability to survive conditions of low soil fertility and rainfall.
Fifteen MSI students are working under head of the NCRRI Bean Programme, Michael Ugen. “The MSI is well received here,” said Dr. Ugen. “The student component has been good, and most are doing well. I’ve been supervising their research, and we are trying to help them move along. Without the MSI, we would have almost no students. The government gives almost no student support.”
The main problem for beans, he said, is diseases, including anthracnose, root rot, and leaf spot. “We have never been able to do enough basic research on these,” he said. “Many donors want to have a fast impact, and then get out. Building disease resistance into these crops is a slow business. There is a lot of interest in genes for disease resistance, but to do a project takes about six years. We hope the MSI will be around longer.”
The work on finding resistant bean genes is just one of many challenges for the researchers. They must also address consumer and farmer acceptance, digestibility, and spoilage issues. For example, farmers prefer the sizes, colors, and tastes of beans they are used to, and do not like to change to a new feature, even if it means disease resistance. Everyone still cooks with charcoal, and charcoal is expensive, so people object to the long cooking time of beans. Researchers are working with food science and nutrition partners to make beans into faster-cooking flour for use in bread, cakes, chapatti, cookies, and other foods.
Another major disease study supported at NCRRI by MSI is an effort to eradicate cassava brown streak disease (CBSD), caused by a rapidly spreading virus that was for many decades confined to coastal regions. The virus causes the roots to rot, and is estimated by the CGIAR to cost the central African region $100 million a year in losses. This is the first major study of CBSD in Uganda, and MSI students are investigating all the basic features of the disease – distribution, variability, rates of spread, impact, and genetic resistance.
As with the aquaculture project, all the students have a specialty within the bean and cassava projects. For beans:
  • Joseph Aston Ebinu, the level of virulence of bean anthracnose in relation to temperature and humidity; 
  • Esther Arengo, the effect of multiple pathogen infections and varying environmental conditions on bean root rot disease; 
  • Moses Kiryowa, a PhD student, the efficacy of pyramided genes in conferring dual resistance to bean anthracnose and root rot; 
  • Vincent Kyaligonza, the genetic diversity among bean anthracnose and root rot pathogen isolates.
For cassava:
  • Alex Abaca, an MSc student, screening for sources of CBSD resistance; 
  • Phillip Abidrabo, an MSc student, genetic and pathogenic diversity analysis of CBSD; 
  • Kasifa Katono, an MSc student, the epidemiology of CBSD.
A key part of the cassava project is to find genetic markers associated with resistance to the cassava virus and transfer those genes into cassava tissue. One student, Henry Mugava, has been sent on his MSI scholarship to the Danforth Center in St. Louis, USA, where he has almost completed a series of genetic “constructs” that he will ship back to Uganda for field trials. The NCRRI program also employs three experienced technicians who help the students with techniques of diagnostics, tissue culture and transformation, and virus detection, for example, so the students do not have to spend a major part of their time learning these techniques. In addition, the MSI has refurbished and upgraded several buildings and built essential “screen houses” where cassava, beans, and other plants can be grown in a clean environment isolated from pests.

Several years ago, the World Bank financed a major Millennium Science Initiative (MSI) program to help strengthen science and technology capacity in Uganda. Approximately half of this investment, the Bank's largest S&T commitment to date, supports a competitive grants program for a variety of university research projects. The financing supports stipends and fees for graduate students, faculty salary supplements, research equipment, and infrastructure. Another major portion is dedicated to transferring technical knowledge to the private sector through academic-business linkages and educational activities for farmers, health workers, and small-business people. The MSI program resembles RISE in providing full support for MSc and PhD students, which is extremely difficult to secure in Africa. The August 2010 blog post series illustrates some of the activities supported by the MSI.