Tracking Sweetpotato Virus

Donor: The National Science Foundation, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Country/Region: Sub-Saharan Africa

Country by country, CIP researchers combed the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa for nearly two years in a bid to find and name every virus that afflicts sweetpotato in the region.

The team wrapped thousands of samples of leaves in coffee filters and plastic bags, tossing in silica gel to preserve them – to render them un-infective – before shipping them to CIP’s Lima headquarters, where the fragmented bits of viruses were sequenced and identified using a specifically developed computer software.

Before this work occurred, “we knew very little about which viruses were causing which problems,” says Jan Kreuze, sub program science leader, Crop Systems and Intensification and Climate Change Division and the project leader.  A plant would display clear signs of disease, “but you would not necessarily know which virus was causing them.”

The fruits of all this labor – gathered in a first-of-its-kind sweet potato virome database – are now available on Cornell’s website.

Jointly funded by The National Science Foundation (NSF) and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with NSF also managing the project, the database was built at Cornell University’s Boyce Thompson Institute which wrote software to analyze the data CIP had processed.

“The whole idea of the project was to better understand the virus pressure in different parts of Africa,” says Kreuze. Breeders take the results into account as they seek new varieties because “what you breed in one region might not work in another;” regulators, seed producers and other groups can also use it to improve their own practices.  In addition, countries and regions whose climates mirror those of African nations can also make use of the database.

Both The Gates Foundation and the NSF are acutely aware of the critical need for this kind of baseline research and discovery, Kreuze adds. “The work they made possible enables future impact” at all points along the value chain.