October 15, 2009

Food safety and security are increasingly global issues. International commerce means food is transported large distances faster than ever. While there are many benefits to this, it could allow potentially devastating plant viruses to spread rapidly to many nations.

To prevent potential global viral epidemics, a team of international researchers, led by University of Kentucky Plant Pathologist Michael Goodin, have developed a proposal to help farmers around the world, and particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, run agricultural operations that are safer, more productive and sustainable.

The researchers will use innovative plant biotechnology techniques to address 10 present or emerging viruses, which pose a threat to yields, quality and ultimately, sustainable agriculture production. These viruses affect crops that are primary sources of food for millions of people and include maize, cassava and cowpea or significant cash crops for developing countries, such as citrus, wine grapes and peppers. Some of the viruses may also have the potential to be engineered to produce vaccines or other biopharmaceuticals.

"While the collaborators will each work on a different virus, we will take common approaches to identify the host factors influencing resistance to each genetically-diverse virus," said Goodin, an associate professor in the UK College of Agriculture.

Once researchers determine the host factors, they hope to develop crop varieties that are resistant to one or more viruses. They also hope to understand plant and virus interactions more fully, which could help in developing disease-resistant varieties for many other crops worldwide.

While the proposal project has been submitted to national granting agencies, it's still going through the review process. However, Goodin continues to move forward.

"This project is too important not to," he said.

Goodin recently took a trip to Nigeria and Kenya to develop partnerships with colleagues at universities in the area, discover potential opportunities for educational exchanges, and assess the current crop situation and agricultural practices.

"This trip allowed me to better understand the farmers' perspectives for what is really needed."

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