Soil Microbes to Help African Farmers Fight Striga

Sorghum is the fifth most important cereal in the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, many farmers rely on this grain for food and feed. But Striga, a parasitic weed, can have a devastating impact on crop yield. With a grant of $8 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, an international team including UC Davis researchers will now explore the potential of soil microbes to offer crop protection. The Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) is coordinating the five-year project.

Striga on sorghum field

A sorghum field infested with Striga (purple flowers). The parasitic plant destroys up to half of Africa’s sorghum crop. (Taye Tessema, Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research)

Hunger and poverty

In Sub-Saharan Africa, sorghum is a major resource for food and feed. But its production is severely constrained by the parasitic plant Striga or ‘witch weed.’ The purple-flowered beauty feasts on the roots of sorghum and there isn’t much smallholder farmers can do. Current research shows that the average yield loss of sorghum in Sub-Saharan Africa due to Striga can exceed 50 percent, aggravating poverty and hunger.

Over the next five years, an Ethiopian-American-Dutch research team lead by NIOO microbial ecologist Jos Raaijmakers and including Siobhan Brady, professor of plant biology at UC Davis, will search for new, sustainable solutions to this old problem. The project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is named PROMISE, for ‘Promoting Root Microbes for Integrated Striga Eradication.’

Working primarily in Ethiopia, the team will survey soil microbes and study how microbes interact with plant roots and soil. They hope to find strategies to encourage microbes that, for example, keep Striga plants from infecting sorghum roots or suppress Striga seeds in soil.

Training local researchers

The NIOO and UC Davis researchers are working with the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research, AgBiome Inc., the Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute and University of Amsterdam (Netherlands).

Ethiopia was chosen as it is one of the countries where the impact of Striga on sorghum is most devastating. Additional goals for the project include improving local research facilities, training Ethiopian scientists and sharing knowledge with local researchers and farmers.

Continuing Sharon Gray’s work

UC Davis postdoctoral researcher Sharon Gray had been working on establishing the PROMISE project before her death during a visit to Ethiopia in October 2016. Gray’s family has established an award fund in her name, endowed with donations made in her memory. Together with a UC Davis Global Affairs seed grant and support from the College of Biological Sciences, Genome Center and Department of Plant Biology, the fund will be used to coordinate a new exchange program, the “Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research – UC Davis Exchange in Honor of Sharon Beth Gray.” Brady hopes to have the first Ethiopian scientist visit UC Davis for a three-month stay under the program in May, 2017.

More information:

NIOO news release

Sharon Gray Memorial Award Established

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