UC Davis receives Gates Foundation “Grand Challenges Explorations” grants

Three UC Davis research teams are winners of Grand Challenges Explorations grants to support innovative global health and development research projects, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. A group led by Professor Savithramma Dinesh-Kumar of the Department of Plant Biology and Genome Center, will pursue making cassava, one of the Africa’s most important crop plants, resistant to viruses. Elizabeth Maga, associate research biologist in the Department of Animal Science, will work on preventing diarrhea in children. And plant sciences professor Pam Ronald is collaborating with Oregon State University on making rice more nutritious and disease-resistant.

Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) funds individuals worldwide who are taking innovative approaches to some of the world’s toughest and persistent global health and development challenges. GCE invests in the early stages of bold ideas that have real potential to solve the problems people in the developing world face every day. The UC Davis projects are one of over 80 Grand Challenges Explorations Round 9 grants announced today by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Investments in innovative global health research are already paying off,” said Chris Wilson, director of Global Health Discovery and Translational Sciences at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We continue to be impressed by the novelty and innovative spirit of Grand Challenges Explorations projects and are enthusiastic about this exciting research. These investments hold real potential to yield new solutions to improve the health of millions of people in the developing world, and ensure that everyone has the chance to live a healthy productive life.”

To receive funding, Grand Challenges Explorations Round 9 winners demonstrated in a two-page online application a creative idea in one of five critical global heath and development topic areas that included agriculture development, immunization and communications. Applications for the current open round, Grand Challenges Explorations Round 10, will be accepted through November 7, 2012.

Virus resistant cassava: Dinesh-Kumar, with David Segal of the UC Davis Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine and Vincent Fondong, Delaware State University, aim to make cassava virus-resistant.

Cassava crops are threatened by viruses that cause Cassava Mosaic Disease. Dinesh-Kumar and colleagues hope to engineer enzymes that can attack the genetic material of these viruses and cut it into pieces. A similar approach has been used in the laboratory against herpes simplex virus and HIV, but this is the first time it has been attempted with viruses that attack plants.

In the first phase, the researchers will attempt to design enzymes that can attack all strains of the virus, and test them in a model plant, Nicotiana. If successful, they will apply for further funding to make transgenic cassava plants for field tests.

Preventing diarrhea: Maga’s grant will support research aimed at improving nutrition and intestinal health in children of developing nations, where malnutrition is associated with more than half of all childhood deaths. It is titled “Preventing Diarrhea with Lysozyme-rich Milk.”

In earlier work, Maga and colleagues have used genetic engineering to develop dairy goats that produce milk with increased levels of lysozyme, an antimicrobial enzyme that occurs naturally at high levels in human milk that can kill bacteria and help establish a set of health-promoting bacteria in the gut. In this one-year project, the researchers will test the ability of lysozyme-rich goats milk to counteract malnourishment and protect against intestinal infections, using the pig as an animal model.

Malnutrition and intestinal infections trap millions of children around the world in a vicious cycle, as the lack of proper nourishment damages their intestines, leaving them vulnerable to infections that, in turn, can impair their ability to absorb nutrients.

If the lysozyme-enhanced goats’ milk proves effective in pigs, the researchers hope that goats or cows producing such milk can be made available in developing countries to provide a ready source of protein, fat and valuable nutrients that can promote a healthier intestine and protect children against bacterial infections, thereby reducing the burdens of malnutrition and diarrhea.

Better rice: Ronald is collaborating with primary investigator Aymeric Goyer of Oregon State University. In this project, titled “A New Strategy for Resistant and More Nutritious Rice,” the researchers will develop rice plants that accumulate higher levels of thiamine (vitamin B1) to test the theory that boosting thiamine enhances the plant’s resistance to disease.

This strategy could lead to crops that resist two devastating pathogens, Xanthomonas oryzae and Magnaporthe grisea, and to rice of higher nutritional value.

About Grand Challenges Explorations

Grand Challenges Explorations is a US$100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Launched in 2008, over 700 people in 45 countries have received Grand Challenges Explorations grants. The grant program is open to anyone from any discipline and from any organization. The initiative uses an agile, accelerated grant-making process with short two-page online applications and no preliminary data required. Initial grants of US$100,000 are awarded two times a year. Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to US$1 million.

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