Research team behind a revolutionary field test for wheat disease wins prestigious BBSRC prize
The research team behind the MARPLE (Mobile And Real-time PLant disEase) diagnostic kit won the international impact category of the annual Innovator of the Year Awards sponsored by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
The team — Diane Saunders of the John Innes Centre (JIC), Dave Hodson of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and Tadessa Daba of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) — was presented with the award at a high-profile event at the London Science Museum on 15 May 2019 before an audience of leading figures from the worlds of investment, industry, government, charity and academia, including Chris Skidmore MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation.
The BBSRC Innovator of the Year awards, now in their 11th year, recognize and support individuals or teams who have taken discoveries in bioscience and translated them to deliver impact. Reflecting the breadth of research that BBSRC supports, they are awarded in four categories of impact: commercial, societal, international and early career.
As finalists in the international impact category, Saunders, Hodson and Daba were among a select group of 12 finalists competing for the prestigious Innovator of the Year 2019 award. In addition to international recognition, they received a £10,000 award.
“I am delighted that this work has been recognized,” said Hodson. “Wheat rusts are a global threat to agriculture, and to the livelihoods of farmers in developing countries such as Ethiopia. MARPLE diagnostics puts state of the art, rapid diagnostic results in the hands of those best placed to respond: researchers on the ground, local government and farmers.”
MARPLE diagnostics is the first operational system in the world using nanopore sequence technology for rapid diagnostics and surveillance of complex fungal pathogens in the field.
In its initial work in Ethiopia, the suitcase-sized field test kit has positioned the country, among the region’s top wheat producers, as a world leader in pathogen diagnostics and forecasting. Generating results within 48 hours of field sampling, the kit represents a revolution in plant disease diagnostics with far-reaching implications for how plant health threats are identified and tracked into the future.
MARPLE is designed to run at a field site without constant electricity and with the varying temperatures of the field.
“This means we can truly take the lab to the field,” explained Saunders. “Perhaps more importantly though, it means that smaller, less resourced labs can drive their own research without having to rely on a handful of large, well-resourced labs and sophisticated expertise in different countries.”
In a recent interview with JIC, EIAR Director Tadessa Daba said, “We want to see this project being used on the ground, to show farmers and the nation this technology works.”
Development of the MARPLE diagnostic kit was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture Inspire Challenge. Continued support is also provided by the BBSRC Excellence with Impact Award to the John Innes Centre 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.
“The dream has become a reality.” These words by Victor Manuel Villalobos Arambula, Secretary of Agriculture and Rural Development of Mexico, summed up the sentiment felt among the attendees at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) Global Wheat Program Visitors’ Week in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora.
In support of the contributions to global and local agricultural programs, Villalobos spoke at the week’s field day, or “Dia de Campo,” in front of more than 200 CIMMYT staff and visitors hailing from more than 40 countries on March 20, 2019.
Villalobos recognized the immense work ahead in the realm of food security, but was optimistic that young scientists could carry on the legacy of Norman Borlaug by using the tools and lessons that he left behind. “It is important to multiply our efforts to be able to address and fulfill this tremendous demand on agriculture that we will face in the near future,” he stated.
The annual tour at the Campo Experimental Norman E. Borlaug allows the global wheat community to see new wheat varieties, learn about latest research findings, and hold meetings and discussions to collaborate on future research priorities. Given the diversity of attendees and CIMMYT’s partnerships, it is no surprise that there were several high-level visits to the field day.
The annual tour at the Campo Experimental Norman E. Borlaug allows the global wheat community to see new wheat varieties, learn about latest research findings, and hold meetings and discussions to collaborate on future research priorities.
Given the diversity of attendees and CIMMYT’s partnerships, it is no surprise that there were several high-level visits to the field day.
A high-level delegation from India, including Balwinder Singh Sidhu, commissioner of agriculture for the state of Punjab, AK Singh, deputy director general for agricultural extension at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), and AS Panwar, director of ICAR’s Indian Institute of Farming Systems Research, joined the tour and presentations. All are longtime CIMMYT collaborators on efforts to scale up and disseminate sustainable intensification and climate smart farming practices.
Panwar, who is working with CIMMYT and partners to develop typologies of Indian farming systems to more effectively promote climate smart practices, was particularly interested in the latest progress in biofortification.
“One of the main objectives of farming systems is to meet nutrition of the farming family. And these biofortified varieties can be integrated into farming systems,” he said.
In addition, a delegation from Tunisia, including dignitaries from Tunisia’s National Institute of Field Crops (INGC), signed a memorandum of understanding with CIMMYT officials to promote cooperation in research and development through exchange visits, consultations and joint studies in areas of mutual interest such as the diversification of production systems. INGC, which conducts research and development, training and dissemination of innovation in field crops, is already a strong partner in the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT)’s Precision Phenotyping Platform for Wheat Septoria leaf blight.
WHEAT and Global Wheat Program Director Hans Braun also took the opportunity to honor and thank three departing CIMMYT wheat scientists. Carlos Guzman, head of wheat nutrition and quality, Mohammad Reza Jalal Kamali, CIMMYT country representative in Iran, and Alexey Morgounov, head of the International Winter Wheat Improvement Program received Yaquis, or statues of a Yaqui Indian. The figure of the Yaqui Indian is a Sonoran symbol of beauty and the gifts of the natural world, and the highest recognition given by the Global Wheat Program.
The overarching thread that ran though the Visitor’s Week was that all were in attendance because of their desire to benefit the greater good through wheat science. As retired INIFAP director and Global Wheat Program Yaqui awardee Antonio Gándara said, recalling his parents’ guiding words, “Siempre, si puedes, hacer algo por los demas, porque es la mejor forma de hacer algo por ti. [Always, if you can, do something for others, because it’s the best way to do something for yourself].”
Awla fellowship program aims to help women researchers in agriculture secure leadership roles by encouraging gender-responsive working cultures and creating platforms that showcase their intellect, capability and contribution.
The Awla fellowship program aims
to help women researchers in agriculture to secure leadership roles by
encouraging gender-responsive working cultures and creating platforms to
showcase their intellect, capability and contribution.
Awla’s first cohort will help establish the first R&D forum in the MENA to
address pressing regional agricultural challenges and take part in the region’s
first networking platform for women researchers across agricultural
The call for applications will
lead to the selection of a group of 20 to 30 researchers from Algeria, Egypt,
Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine and Tunisia. The program will be delivered
from two regional hubs – Jordan and Tunisia – over a 10-month period, starting
from 1st June 2019.
Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, Director
General of ICBA, said: “Women-led contributions to agriculture, both on the
farm and in the lab, are essential components of global food security. And our
program is designed to address structural causes of gender inequality and
encourage women to take an active role in future scientific developments and
innovation. Tapping women’s knowledge and potential today will set the world on
course for a more sustainable and food-secure future.”
H.E. Dr. Bandar Hajjar, President
of the IsDB, said: “We are delighted to be partnering in launching this new
program, which is a solid step in making sure no one is left behind. At the
IsDB, we are focused on putting in place the next steps to help achieve gender
parity and the Awla fellowship program is a welcome addition to the number of
high-profile projects we have launched and designed to promote women and
women’s empowerment, along with our IsDB Prize for Women’s Contribution to
Mr. Hassan Damluji, Deputy Director
– Global Policy & Advocacy and Head of Middle East Relations at the Bill
& Melinda Gates Foundation said: “This year’s call to action for International
Women’s Day is to build a gender-balanced world – and that’s precisely what Awla aims to
do for regional agricultural research and development. By
providing female researchers with the resources needed to build their skills
and networks and a platform to be heard, the program aims to address the gender
gap in agricultural R&D and create a more balanced playing field for women
and men. This will improve the quality and impact of agricultural
research in MENA overall, resulting in more solutions to the
region’s most pressing challenges.
“We’re delighted to partner with ICBA and the IsDB on a fellowship
program that will produce a
wave of skilled, empowered and well-connected female researchers. This first
cohort will play a key role in the success and
sustainability of the program, and we encourage all candidates from across the
focus countries to apply.”
Mr. Victor Kommerell, Program
Manager for the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, remarked: “We are excited
to work together with Awla. We have the same interest – building female science
power in the MENA region. Naturally, WHEAT’s focus is on social or natural
sciences research connected to wheat-based systems. Awla is the larger program
and WHEAT can fit right in. Together, we can build critical mass in a few
Empirical evidence indicates that a disproportionately low number
of women work in senior research and leadership positions in the region. The
average share of women researchers across the region stands at 17% – the lowest
in the world. This gap is most visible in the staffing of agricultural research
and extension organizations, despite women making up more than 40% of the labor
force in the sector. This means that policy and investment measures in
agriculture might not be as effective as they could be because they do not
fully reflect gender perspectives.
ICBA developed Awla in 2016 with
support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the IsDB. The program aims
to contribute to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)
on gender equality and women’s empowerment by building and enhancing the
capacities of a new generation of Arab women researchers and leaders. By doing
so, Awla aspires to have a positive impact on the SDGs on Climate Action; Life
on Land; and Partnerships for the Goals.
About ICBA The International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) is a unique applied agricultural research center in the world with a focus on marginal areas where an estimated 1.7 billion people live. It identifies, tests and introduces resource-efficient, climate-smart crops and technologies that are best suited to different regions affected by salinity, water scarcity and drought. Through its work, ICBA helps to improve food security and livelihoods for some of the poorest rural communities around the world. www.biosaline.org
About the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy and productive lives. Through collaboration and partnership, the foundation helps fund research and programs to benefit those living in poverty all around the globe. The foundation works with partners in the Middle East to address the needs of the most vulnerable people through investments in disease eradication, emergency relief and agricultural research, as well as providing support to the philanthropic and development aid sectors. https://www.gatesfoundation.org/
About IsDB The Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) Group is one of the world’s largest multilateral development banks that has been working for over 40 years to improve the lives of the communities that it serves by delivering impact at scale. The Bank brings together 57-member countries across four continents touching the lives of 1 in every 5 of the world’s population. Rated AAA by the three major rating agencies of the world, the IsDB Mission is to equip people to drive their own economic and social progress at scale, putting the infrastructure in place to enable them to fulfil their potential. The IsDB builds collaborative partnerships among communities and nations, and work towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by harnessing the power of science, technology and innovation and fostering ethical and sustainable solutions to the world’s greatest development challenges. Over the years, the Islamic Development Bank has evolved from a single entity into a group (IsDB Group) comprising five entities: Islamic Development Bank (IsDB), the Islamic Research and Training Institute (IRTI), the Islamic Corporation for the Development of the Private Sector (ICD), the Islamic Corporation for the Insurance of Investment and Export Credit (ICIEC), and the International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (ITFC).www.isdb.org
About CGIAR Research Program on Wheat Joining advanced science with field-level research and extension in lower- and middle-income countries, the Agri-Food Systems CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) works with public and private organizations worldwide to raise the productivity, production and affordable availability of wheat for 2.5 billion resource-poor producers and consumers who depend on the crop as a staple food. WHEAT is led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) as a primary research partner. Funding for WHEAT comes from CGIAR and national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies, in particular the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). www.wheat.org
The Inspire Challenge encourages CGIAR partners, universities and others to use big data approaches through innovative pilot projects to advance agricultural research and development. To be named a winner, projects must have real potential for developmental impact, have mobilized underused or misused data, and demonstrate meaningful partnerships with CGIAR and other sector members. Ultimately, the Inspire Challenge looks for novel approaches to inform policies and applications in agriculture and food security.
We sat down with CIMMYT Principal Scientist and rust pathologist Dave Hodson to ask him about the project and its relationship with Big Data for Agriculture.
What is the significance of Big Data to your work? Advances in sequencing technology, and the use of innovative big data approaches on sequence data from thousands of yellow rust isolates, opened the door for Diane Saunders and colleagues at the John Innes Centre in the UK to develop revolutionary, near-real time, mobile pathogen diagnostic techniques using portable palm-sized gene sequencers. The final result being the first operational system in the world using nanopore sequence technology for rapid diagnostics and surveillance of complex fungal pathogens in situ.
How do you see the role of the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture in your work? Support from the CGIAR Big Data Platform was critical to establish the partnership between John Innes, the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and CIMMYT and enable piloting and testing of the new MARPLE diagnostic platform in Ethiopia. The choice of Ethiopia to be the first country for initial testing was based on several key factors. Firstly, a strong national partner in EIAR; secondly, the critical importance of wheat and wheat rust diseases in the country. Ethiopia is the largest wheat producer in sub-Saharan Africa, but it is also considered the gateway for new wheat rust strains entering into Africa from Asia. All these factors made Ethiopia the highest priority country to take the lead in testing this revolutionary new and rapid pathogen diagnostics platform.
How did it impact this MARPLE project? The pilot and subsequent scale-up project from the CGIAR Big Data Platform has enabled in-country capacity to be developed, and cutting edge technology for rapid pathogen diagnostics to be deployed in the front-line in the battle against devastating wheat rust diseases. The scientific innovation in developing the MARPLE platform, coupled to the suitability of the technology for developing country partners has now attracted support and interest from other donors. Matching funds were recently obtained for the scale -up phase of MARPLE from the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat project (implemented by Cornell University and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development). This scale-up phase of the project will see a set of distributed MARPLE hubs established and embedded within the Ethiopian wheat research system – resulting in a sentinel system for the rapid detection of new yellow rust races that is unparalleled anywhere in the world. The scientific breakthrough in developing rapid diagnostics for complex fungal pathogens using nanopore sequencing will permit the development of similar systems for other important fungal diseases in the future.
The MARPLE project was selected as a 2017 winner, with the team receiving 100,000 USD to put their ideas into practice. The team came runners up for the Scale Up award the following year, receiving an additional USD 125,000 for their outstanding ability to demonstrate the project’s proven viability and potential for impact.