Prof Dave Berger from the Plant Science Department, Forestry and Agriculture Biotechnology Institute (FABI) at the University of Pretoria, South Africa was awarded a 2013 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Norman E. Borlaug International Agricultural Science and Technology Fellowship.

These Fellowships were set up in honour of Norman Borlaug, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1972 for his role in breeding improved varieties of wheat that led to the Green Revolution. The Fellowships provide opportunities for Agricultural researchers from around the world to work with US scientists.

Prof Berger spent three months of his Sabbatical hosted by Dr Burt Bluhm in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Dr Bluhm is a leading international researcher in the genetics of fungal pathogens of crops. The topic of the research visit was gray leaf spot disease of maize, a limiting factor in maize production globally including sub-Saharan Africa. Prof Berger’s research group Molecular Plant-Pathogen Interactions has a project focused on the fungus Cercospora zeina, the causal agent of this disease in Africa. Genome sequencing of an African isolate of the fungus is underway, partially funded by the Genomics Research Institute at UP with additional funds leveraged from a NRF Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics grant. Prof Berger visited the Genomics Facility at Purdue University, USA, as well as the Yale Centre for Genome Analysis, New Haven, Connecticut which has a state-of-the-art PacBio single molecule sequencer. This technology has the advantage over current next-generation sequencing methods of direct sequencing of the fungal DNA and produces longer DNA sequence runs. An outcome of the visit was to improve the C. zeina genome sequence using PacBio.

The Fellowship also afforded Prof Berger the opportunity to attend the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa, considered to the be the “Nobel Prize in Agriculture”. The 2013 prize was awarded to Robert Fraley, Mary Dell Chilton and Marc van Montagu who each independently demonstrated at the same symposium in 1983 that Agrobacterium transfers and integrates DNA into plant chromosomes, the basis of genetically modified crops. During the sabbatical visit, Prof Berger collaborated with Prof Ken Korth at the University of Arkansas in setting up a questionnaire on attitudes to agricultural biotechnology which was completed by students at the University of Arkansas as well as third year and Honours students at the University of Pretoria, and the results were shared and discussed on both continents.

A serendipitous meeting at the World Food Prize between Prof Berger and Prof Willi Meyers, Director of the CAFNR International Programs at the University of Missouri led to a new collaboration on the impact of fungal diseases on small-holder farmers in KwaZulu-Natal. Two grant proposals have been submitted. Prof Berger, together with Dr Bridget Crampton, Department of Plant Science, who runs the Cereal Foliar Pathogens Research Group in FABI, and postgraduate students visited the small-holder research sites in KwaZulu-Natal together with staff of the KwaZulu-Natal Agricultural Union (KWANALU) in April 2014.

Further outcomes of the Borlaug Fellowship is the planned visit of a student from Dr Bluhm’s lab to UP in May 2014 with a USDA-funded follow up visit by Dr Bluhm to Prof Berger’s lab in mid-2014. This collaborative research into the pathogenicity mechanisms and population genetics of C. zeina has the long term aim of finding weaknesses in the armoury of the fungus which can be exploited to develop novel control strategies. 

Photo: Prof Berger receiving Fellowship certificate from Karen Utrecht, Africa Program Manager, Borlaug and Scientific Exchange Programs, USDA, together with Dr Burt Bluhm, University of Arkansas.