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Helping end hunger in East Africa

The cassava plant: tolerant of drought, neglect and almost any sort of growing conditions, the starchy tuber of this plant is a primary source of nutrition and a vital economic resource in East Africa, where millions of people rely on it as a food staple.

But outbreaks of brown-streak virus are causing the crop to rot, creating $1.25 billion in crop losses every year and devastating families who rely on it as a source of food and income, contributing to recurring famine in the region.

The culprit in spreading this insidious crop disease? An insect no larger than a pinhead: the African cassava whitefly.

Carrying the virus from plant to plant when it feeds, the whitefly has infected crops in nine African nations.

An international team, composed of biologists, geneticists, statisticians and other experts, is analyzing the genetic makeup of whiteflies to find ways to slow down or stop the spread of the brown-streak virus.

“We’re collecting DNA from hundreds of individual whiteflies and studying the entire genome from each of them,” said researcher Laura Kubatko, a member of The Ohio State University’s Translational Data Analytics Institute.

The statistical analysis of the genomes will answer essential questions about the whitefly’s genetic diversity, such as:

  • How many different kinds or species of whiteflies are there?
  • How are the species similar or different?
  • Are all whiteflies equally good carriers of the virus or are some more prolific than others?

Identifying the behavior and infectivity of specific whitefly types will allow researchers to determine how to stop them from spreading the virus — and restore a reliable source of food and income for millions of East Africans.