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Internship at the National Crops Resources Research Institute, Uganda 6th June – 26th August 2016
Over the summer I went on an adventure to discover how Cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) works in the field. Working in the lab, I regularly infect plants with CBSD viruses to study how they replicate, move and cause symptoms. However, in the field there is a much more complex interplay of different viral strains, cassava varieties, white fly population dynamics and environmental conditions which all contribute towards the disease. CBSD outbreaks are currently impacting on the food security of millions of cassava farmers in east Africa and it appears to be spreading westward, threatening food security in many countries. As part of my South West Doctoral Training Partnership PhD, I am required to complete a three-month internship. I decided to visit the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) in Uganda, where CBSD is having a devastating impact. NaCRRI is home to the Cassava Regional Center of Excellence and is at the forefront of CBSD research.
I was fortunate to assist with field visits to different sites across Uganda as part of the 5CP project. The project is screening different cassava varieties from five east and southern African countries for CBSD and Cassava mosaic disease (CMD) resistance across different agro-ecological zones. I helped to score plants for CBSD symptoms. I was fascinated by how variable the disease severity was in different varieties, with some plants appearing to be disease free whereas others were heavily infected.
I also got to see the superabundant whiteflies, which transmit viruses and understand how their populations are affected by environmental conditions. These visits helped me to realise how dynamic the situation is, with previously disease free areas becoming affected.
I helped to tag cassava plants, free from CBSD and CMD to be used in further breeding. Results from this programme will shape future breeding efforts, making it easier and faster to develop resistant varieties. The institute has also been working on genetically modified cassava, which show high levels of CBSD resistance. I was very excited to help plant a confined field trial of genetically modified cassava in western Uganda. Before planting we held discussions with people from the local government and farmers’ groups to discuss their concerns.
It’s vital to engage the local community so that people are correctly informed and on-board with the project.
There were certainly some very strange myths to debunk!
In addition to breeding, the institute is running the Clean Seed System project, which is developing a system for multiplying certified disease free cassava planting material. This material will be distributed to farmers to reduce the impact of CBSD and increase yields. It’s hoped that this will help cassava be transformed into a commercial crop, which farmers can profit from.
I also went to the Source of the Nile agricultural show (pictured right), which attracts over 120,000 visitors each year. I helped on a sweet potato stand; telling members of the public about new varieties, which are resistant to pests and diseases with higher levels of provitamin A. The main challenge was that not everyone can speak English and my UK accent was quite difficult to understand.
There are over 40 local languages in Uganda, so even Ugandans can find it difficult to communicate!
I’ve been blogging my experiences for the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol. These posts helped to communicate the importance of CBSD and the different activities being used to combat the disease. The posts have had over 1,200 visits and have generated interesting discussions on Twitter.
These experiences have been truly inspiring.
Not only has my knowledge and understanding of how the disease works improved, I now have a much better insight into the human element of CBSD. I’ve witnessed the importance of communicating and engaging farmers with new tolerant varieties and control methods. These insights have helped me to contextualise my research and develop ideas for future experiments with real-life applications. I plan to maintain the strong collaborative relationships I’ve made with the cassava team at NaCRRI and hope to work together on future projects. I also got to go on safari in the Queen Elizabeth National Park, where I saw hippos, elephants and even lions!
Katie Tomlinson University of Bristol