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28th – 30th June 2022
The New CONNECTIONS online conference, organised by the Community Network for Vector-borne Plant Viruses (CONNECTED), brought together plant pathologists, entomologists and agricultural innovators from all over the world. The main aim of this virtual event was to build new connections between disciplines and researchers, zoning in on the most crucial areas of interdisciplinary research needed to improve global food security. With an opening address from the University of Cape Town’s Vice-Chancellor Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng, the conference featured scientific talks from world-class leaders in plant vector-borne disease, covering everything from phytosanitary concerns to yam viruses. There were workshops to explore priority research questions, opportunities and challenges, plus networking and poster sessions. In the lead up to the conference, we also offered 20 places on a Scriptoria grant-writing workshop. This highly interactive two-day masterclass equipped researchers with the critical skills needed to write effective research proposals and win funding. Of the 329 people who registered for the New CONNECTIONS online conference, the majority were Early Career Researchers (ECRs) (73%). They were based in around 50 countries, with most hailing from the UK, Nigeria, India, Kenya, South Africa and Pakistan, 57% were male, 43% female.
We had an excellent range of speakers from 9 countries (Benin, Germany, Kenya, Nigeria, Poland, Spain, UK, USA and South Africa) with an approximately 50:50 gender split.
There was an inspirational opening address from Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng, who encouraged researchers to “be bold in suggesting deliberate strategic and proactive ways to develop solutions to the pressing immediate problem of hunger”. She added that “True partnerships between researchers from different parts of the world must be founded on the principle of equitability.”
Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng
Highlights from the talks
Dr Kolade Olufisayo, IITA Ibadan, Nigeria, gave us an overview of work on yam viruses affecting west Africa. Yam is widely grown in west Africa and is the major staple crop there as well as being of huge cultural significance. Kolade described the integrated plant management methods used in virus control. These include rogueing, the use of virus-free clonally propagated planting material, sanitation of farm implements and plant breeding. A wide range of diagnostics are used in surveillance and breeding programmes including serological, PCR-based and isothermal detection. Digital apps such as Leaf Doctor and Estimate App are being used together with multispectral imaging, satellites, and ground-based vehicles and drones. Kolade is very aware that their work must be considered in the context of the global dual challenges of increased population and climate change, saying ‘all hands must be on deck in order to mitigate the effects of viruses.’
Anthony Mabele, Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST), Kenya
reported an alarming finding in his work on Phasey bean mild yellow virus in Kenya. The virus has been found in Bambara groundnut, a variety that is widely grown because of its resistance to many plant viruses. Groundnut is widely grown in Sub-Saharan Africa and more work is needed to address this new finding.
Prof Shirley Luckhart, Institute for Health in the Human Ecosystem, University of Idaho, USA gave a presentation on the direct biological connections between plant, animal and human health. For example, lettuce can act as a vector of human and animal pathogens, the bacteria colonise the plant tissues and washing cannot remove them. Shirley encouraged us to take a step back and think more broadly both about the challenges of vector-borne disease and our role in bringing our skills to bear upon these challenges.
Prof Toby Bruce, Insect Chemical Ecology, Keele University, UK. Toby’s presentation on insect pests and how to manage them included a quote from the well-known book by Rachel Carson – Silent Spring. In it, Carson recognises that biological solutions are required – “Specialists representing various areas of the vast field of biology are contributing – entomologists, pathologists, geneticists, physiologists, biochemists, ecologists – all pouring their knowledge and their creative inspirations into the formation of a new science of biotic controls.” Toby summarised his talk by saying that we have a double challenge – improving food security whilst also conserving biodiversity. We need to find ways of achieving both.
Dr Stephan Winter, Leibniz Institute DSMZ, Germany, gave a presentation on the biology, epidemiology and options for disease management and control of cassava brown streak viruses. This included an important lesson in phytosanitary work and the movement of plant material between farms, regions and countries: “If you don’t bring in the disease, it won’t come.”
Dr Adrian Valli, Spanish National Center for Biotechnology (CNB-CSIC), Spain.
During his presentation on cassava brown streak virus, plant-virus co-evolution and the role of the HAM 1 protein Adrian said that an alignment of diverse proteins showed something “very curious and interesting,” which touches on why many of us love science so much, we are curious and want to learn more.
In addition to the plenary presentations there were two sessions of short talks, both invited and volunteered by delegates, which covered a wide range of topics. In the first session the talks included reference gene selection for potato virus Y, an update on the CALIBER project which is part of the Bacterial Plant Diseases Programme, the impact of climate change on the whitefly Bemisia tabaci which is one of the more economically important insect vectors in Africa and beyond. There was also a presentation on the role of climate services by Joseph Daron, a Science Manager from the Met Office and joint appointment with the University of Bristol.
In the second session the talks included the movement and replication of cassava brown streak virus, viruses infecting sweet potato in Nigeria, high throughout sequencing as a diagnostic tool for virus indexing in yam seed systems and also as part of a surveillance workflow in UK peas, a survey of maize viruses across Benin, and farmer awareness of cassava mosaic disease in Nigeria.
Recordings of all conference talks will be edited and made available as lasting resources for CONNECTED members. CONNECTED is free to join.
Networking and workshops
Daily networking sessions brought researchers together and Mural was used as a tool for collecting ideas. Highlights included work with Nay Dia, formerly at ETH Zurich, to explore setting up an ECR peer support network, supported by the Cabot Institute for the Environment. In collaboration with CreativeConnection, we created a visual representation of what an early career researcher peer support network could look like. Networking also focused on interdisciplinary challenges – using real-life examples from speaker Prof Shirley Luckhart’s excellent presentation.
Our first workshop focused on innovations in plant vector-borne disease, led by Dr Saliou Niassy, Head of the Agricultural Technology Transfer Unit at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Kenya. He talked about scaling up and technology transfer at ICIPE, stressing the need for scientists to understand the requirements of end-users. Examples of projects they are working on include the extension of push pull technology from maize to other crops such as potato, tomato and cabbage.
Also involved were Dr Andy Evans and Dr Jemma Taylor of Crop Health and Protection Limited (CHAP) UK. They described CHAP activities, the facilities they use and opportunities they offer. An example of their work is their collaboration with the CABI Plantwise programme to develop the International Pest Horizon Scanning capability, which uses tablet computers to bridge the gap between agricultural research and pest management in the field.
Our second workshop looked at current and emerging issues in plant vector-borne disease, with facilitation by Dr Vicky Jones of the Cabot Institute. It involved break out room discussions on control strategies, vector biology, new diseases, vector-virus interactions, diagnostics, surveillance and forecasting.
We will write up all workshop and networking outcomes and identify how these ideas and opportunities could be further developed.
Nine scientific posters were accepted for the online poster session, which was held on Slack throughout the conference. There were plenty of questions asked and answered, with an average of 56 people joining each poster channel.
Feedback from participants who completed our survey has been overwhelmingly positive – 94% rated the conference very good or excellent. Many attendees said they gained a broader knowledge of plant pathology and entomology, and made good connections with other researchers and experts. In the survey:
- 10 people identified the networking sessions or workshops as highlights
- 16 people mentioned learning and knowledge, and staying up to date with the latest research
- 5 people talked about multidisciplinarity
Participants gained new knowledge in:
“How plant biology is applied to real world problems”
“Technology transfer approaches”
“Emerging pests and innovative ways to manage any epidemiological situation that may arise”
“It was very helpful hearing about similar diseases and how each country is dealing with the detection and protection”
“I really got great information regarding plant viruses especially from Dr Stephan Winter”
“I gained a renewed understanding around the different areas of research to do with vector-borne plant diseases”
“It gave me opportunity to interact with international researchers from different fields”
“Everything was super and loaded with new knowledge session after session”
On Twitter, participants said:
Participants on the Scriptoria grant-writing masterclass rated it 4.8 out of 5, on average, and said:
“Our trainer was just excellent”
“This was a unique, wonderful and timely training opportunity. Thank you so much and continue with this noble course of capacity building and networking programmes”
The CONNECTED Network is very grateful to British Society for Plant Pathology (BSPP) for their sponsorship of this event. We also thank our conference facilitator and Chair, Dr Sylvester Dickson Baguma, Director of Research, Bulindi Zonal Agricultural Research and Development Institute, National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO).
CONNECTED Network Team, Bristol, UK