This article was originally posted on the Alliance for Accelerated Crop Improvement in Africa (ACACIA) website.
A network of Ethiopian researchers across the country are championing a new mobile lab to provide near real-time, strain-level diagnostics during wheat rust outbreaks.
Since winning the international impact category of the BBSRC innovator of the year award the MARPLE (Mobile And Real-time PLant disEase) diagnostic platform is now being established in research hubs across the wheat growing areas of Ethiopia. This marks the next step for the platform after its first trial in country just over a year ago. The UK-Ethiopian partnership hopes to have these platforms fully operational in time for the next growing season in 2020.
“Wheat yellow rust continues to cause huge losses for Ethiopian farmers,” says Diane Saunders whose lab led the creation of MARPLE diagnostics, “finally we have a proven mobile pipeline that gives us information on precisely which strain is present in a farmer’s field in near real-time. This provides the time needed to plan informed defensive responses. Our goal is now to put this technology in the hands of the researcher hubs on the ground.”
Visit between Bill Gates and DFID head Alok Sharma featured demonstration of MARPLE mobile rust-testing lab
New £38 million funding from the Department for International Development (DFID, or UK aid), with additional funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will allow scientists to research cutting-edge technology to protect crops from pests and diseases and produce new varieties that are climate-resilient.
The joint funding, which was announced on Monday October 7, will directly contribute to securing global food security against pest and disease threats, climate change and natural resource scarcity. It will also reduce poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia by improving agricultural productivity of smallholder farmers.
The partnership will support biotechnologies to enable crops to convert sunlight and carbon dioxide more efficiently to promote higher yields, tools and methods to reduce the impact of root crop diseases in West Africa, and work to harness naturally occurring biological nitrogen fixation processes to improve crops’ nitrogen uptake and increase yields while reducing fertilizer use among smallholder farmers in Africa.
Early last year DFID also announced funding for CGIAR to help scientists identify specific genes in crops related to improved nutrition, faster growth and disease and climate-resilience. Their work will help up to 100 million African farmers and their families lift themselves out of poverty.
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 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.