Borlaug Fellow researches maize virus at Iowa State University

November 11, 2017

Esther Kimani visited Iowa State University (ISU) as part of the Norman E. Borlaug International Agricultural Science and Technology Fellowship Program. Esther was hosted by the Global Programs Department in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and mentored by Gary Munkvold, Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology & Microbiology through the Seed Science Center at Iowa State University. Esther visited Iowa State from Kenya with a background in molecular biology and conducted research on the maize chlorotic mottle virus (MCMV). MCMV in combination with a cereal potyvirus, causes the maize lethal necrosis disease.

The MCMV was first identified in Kenya in 2011 and accounted for a loss of 0.5 million tons of maize in year 2013 in Kenya alone. This virus is a critical issue because maize is the main staple of food in Kenya. Maize chlorotic mottle virus affects the maize crop at very early stages causing the crop to produce at much lower yields or even die prematurely. MCMV is spread through maize seed, insect vectors and infected plant debris. In different parts of Kenya, the growing season for maize is favorable because of the warm temperatures for longer periods of time compared to a shorter growing season in Iowa. These conditions are favorable for the host of the virus (maize) to be present at all times, and for the vectors to thrive.  The virus has also been reported in other Eastern Africa countries impacting the grain production for farmers and families that rely on the product. Farmers can minimize the spread of the virus through different farm management options like removing and destroying the maize crop showing symptoms of the virus, rotating the maize crop with other horticulture crops (cabbage, potato, etc.) and using certified maize seed.

While on campus, Esther worked with Dr. Munkvold, staff and graduate students in the Seed Science Center to research the MCMV more in depth and identify additional ways to detect the virus in maize seed and the transmission of the virus from the plant to seed. Esther also had the opportunity to attend seminars and seed pathology classes at Iowa State University and hosted a seminar at the end of her visit to share her findings in context with her research studies. Esther attended the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa from October 17-19. During her visit to the symposium, Esther met global leaders in agriculture and food production and addressed various issues and challenges to minimize world hunger and poverty.

Esther returned Kenya on December 20th and plans to continue her research on the maize chlorotic mottle virus at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO). KALRO is a national organization that ‘specializes in crop, livestock genetic resources and biotechnology research in Kenya’. Esther enjoyed the networking and collaboration opportunities that she has received during her visit and was most fascinated with the technology used in the research labs at Iowa State University.