Cassava is a highly important crop in many parts of the world. Two years ago in Africa, it even surpassed the main staple, corn, in terms of volume planted. While this tuber is highly resilient, able to grow even in the harshest conditions it still suffers from many diseases. Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD) is one of the worst.

Trino Ascencio-Ibanez, Professor and Researcher in the Biochemistry Department at NC State University, is part of a consortium that studies CMD. For him this work is personal. “I’m originally from Mexico,” he said, “That’s where I learned that tomatoes, tomatillos and peppers all suffer from a similar virus. When they get infected you can’t make salsa and if I don’t have salsa I’m not a happy person. More than that though, I felt like I needed to help translate the knowledge we have here to those fighting CMD in other places.”

Cassava plant infected with CMD. CMD presents as yellowed, deformed leaves.

The National Science Foundation grant that funds Trino’s work also includes scientists from North Carolina A&T, Auburn, Rutgers and NCSU. Scientists in the consortium collaborate with two main partners in Africa – BeCA Biosciences in Kenya and TARI Mikocheni and Arusha in Tanzania. Together the group forms an international hub for CMD research. They use LabArchives to share data and findings easily and across borders and time zones. 

“Even in normal times,” Trino mentioned, “we have three different departments at NCSU alone that are involved in this work so it can be hard to get everyone and their research in one place.“ Coordinating so many parties around one project can be difficult but because CMD isn’t restricted to one geographical area, this collaborative approach just makes sense.

“We have expertise on this virus family here in the U.S. so the whole idea behind the consortium is to share that knowledge with our counterparts in Africa,” Trino said. When this work started six years ago the first step was to simply find out exactly what was happening there with CMD. Trino travelled to Tanzania to find out. 

“We already knew how nasty CMD could be and how it could wipe out big cassava fields. Next we needed our partners’ knowledge and to figure out what kind of solution might work for them.” Since 2014, Trino has travelled to Tanzania twelve times to learn more about the project partners’ experience with cassava farming and CMD.

“When I go to Tanzania, I usually don’t stay in fancy hotels. I stay close to the institute so I can experience the place and get to know the researchers’ and the farmers’ wants and needs,” he said. Through these trips Trino has learned about what agricultural challenges these communities face, what cassava varieties they grow and has determined who the stakeholders truly are. “Scientists are sometimes detached,” Trino said, “When we visit we go to small villages, we talk to the farmers. Sometimes they don’t know what causes this crop disease and think the sun has burned their plants. I want to bring solutions directly to them.”

This on the ground experience has been invaluable in helping the consortium to define their goals and figure out exactly how they can help combat CMD in Africa. “We’ve even answered questions of taste,” Trino said, “We work with some cassava varieties here in the U.S. that our partners don’t like the taste of, for example.”

Trino’s collaborator Dr. Cyprian Rajabu and his family.

Since it started, the consortium has reached several milestones and this collaborative work has helped determine some low hanging fruit when it comes to reducing the harm CMD causes. One example has to do with how the cassava crop itself is planted.

Cassava isn’t propagated from seed but rather by using cuttings from mature plants. In many cases, the virus is already present in the cuttings but won’t reveal itself until new growth forms. The consortium is working on strategies to provide farmers with clean growing material for a ground up approach. “I want us to engage even more with the extension part of agriculture so that farmers know where they can find clean planting material and get help,” Trino said.

If cassava isn’t infected with CMD at the time of planting it can later be infected by whiteflies who carry the disease. “In the U.S. we just spray for whiteflies but in Africa this isn’t feasible cost wise and there are no seasons so the flies are always around.” The consortium opened the first insect testing facility in Africa of its kind to manage these pests. Rather than elimination, Trino and the team focus on management and providing solutions that fit stakeholder needs by working with what is available.

Trino’s next Tanzania trip has been cancelled due to COVID-19 but he’s still able to plan and conduct work via LabArchives. “I’m not an expert user but when we were writing this grant I realized how useful LabArchives would be to the project. It’s a repository for all of our protocols. Some researchers have left over time but we still have their data in LabArchives and we’ve been keeping different parties engaged there for over six years.” Even though the consortium spans many time zones, anyone can login and check out what data other partners are pulling in. The team uses the comments section to go back and forth and never have to worry about losing data.

“The pandemic has pushed us to analyze and publish what we have already produced,” Trino said, “rather than letting it pile up until the end.” Legacy and sustainability are top of mind in more ways than one for the consortium as they look to implement solutions tailored for stakeholders.

Trino and collaborators in Tanzania.