Unraveling the genetic secrets of the insect vectors of crop virus diseases
Jeff Stuart, an insect molecular geneticist from Purdue University, USA, is bringing new ideas and techniques to CIAT’s efforts to combat crop pests and diseases in the tropics. Through a 6-month sabbatical leave at Center headquarters, he has begun an effort to develop a better understanding of key problems, while also exploring new opportunities for research collaboration.
“Looking at the genes of the insect vector that transmits the Rice hoja blanca virus (RHBV) is very important,” he said. “Sequencing the genome of this insect [Tagosodes orizicolus, which is commonly referred to in Latin America as Sogata] will help find ways to prevent future outbreaks.”
RHBV is transmitted only through the insect vector and cannot be transmitted by other means, making it very difficult to breed rice varieties with resistance to RHBV. Stuart aims to elucidate the genetic mechanism that enables the insect to carry and transmit the virus. Based on his strong background in insect genomics, he has introduced an approach for sequencing the insect.
“The literature suggests that a single gene controls the insect vector’s ability to transmit the virus, but other than that, there’s not much information available,” Stuart said. “We don’t know the size of the insect’s genome, but sequencing will provide some answers.”
Stuart is also interacting with CIAT’s Cassava Program on whiteflies, which pose a serious threat to the crop in Latin America and Africa. He hopes to examine the interactions between whiteflies and the cassava plant and discover the genes that enable the insect to survive on a number of important crops.
Stuart had this to say about his experience at CIAT: “Being able to carry out this research at CIAT has given me a very valuable opportunity to take advantage of the Center’s long history with cassava and rice. CIAT is very strong in crop improvement and strong in research on viruses. My role is in-between, focusing on insect vectors of virus diseases.”
As Stuart’s sabbatical leave comes to a close, he’s planning further collaboration between CIAT and Purdue. Clair Hershey, Cassava Program leader, and Joe Tohme, Agrobiodiversity Research Area director, have encouraged him to develop a model for better understanding the interaction between viruses and their insect vectors. Stuart also hopes to continue mapping the genomes of insect vectors and unraveling their genetic secrets.