A research collaboration led by a professor from the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech will work to develop methods to protect agriculturally important crops in developing countries from devastating attacks from plant pathogens with the support of a $1.45 million award from the Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development (BREAD) program sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF).

The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and Virginia Tech Plant Pathology, Physiology and Weed Science Professor Brett Tyler; along with Mark Guiltinan, The Pennsylvania State University professor of horticulture; and Shunyuan Xiao, associate professor at the University of Maryland at College Park, will develop new approaches for crop protection against a broad range of diseases caused by fungal and fungal-like pathogens.

The team’s research will target cacao, an economically and ecologically important crop for a number of developing countries, in collaboration with cacao expert Brian Bailey from the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agriculture Research Service (ARS) in Beltsville, Md.

According to the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO), approximately 3 million tons of cocoa, which is the primary ingredient in chocolate made from cacao seeds, is produced globally each year. Africa produces 70 percent of the world’s cocoa and it serves as a major export commodity for many other countries such as Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, Costa Rica, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In addition to being an important economic crop for these areas, it also provides many ecological benefits such as rain forest preservation.

Plant disease caused by fungal and water mold (oomycete) pathogens place critical limitations on cacao production worldwide. While significant advances have been made in research involving disease resistance for staple food crops such as rice, wheat, and corn, more work is needed involving other crops to help provide food and income options for smallholder farmers in developing countries.

Cocoa is predominantly a smallholder crop, with more than 90 percent of the world’s production originating from small farms.

The project targets two mechanisms that appear to be crucial for the way these pathogens attack plants. One approach will explore the usefulness of an anti-microbial protein to target and impair infection within the feeding parts (haustoria) of the pathogen. A second approach involves blocking the entry of virulence proteins that pathogens secrete into host cells to bring about disease. The most promising strategies will be transferred to cacao and evaluated for their ability to protect against disease.

“To help ensure smallholder communities in developing countries are provided with the kinds of nutrition and income options needed for a healthy life, it is critical that crop improvement strategies be applied to many different kinds of crops,” Tyler explains. “One of the strengths of this project is that the tested approaches will potentially be applicable to a wide variety of crop species and diseases that are important to the developing world.”

More information about the BREAD program is available online.