Edgar Okello, a 2016 Fall Borlaug LEAP fellow and MSc student at the University of Eldoret, Kenya, in the Crop Protection program, is researching population genetic studies of the wheat stem rust pathogen in Kenya. Farming has long been recognized as the backbone of the Kenyan economy and wheat is the second most widely grown cereal crop after maize in the country. One of the major constraints hampering its production is the stem rust pathogen Ug99 and its variants. If not controlled at an early stage, up to 99% of yield loss has been known to occur. Not only is it a threat in Kenyan wheat varieties, but also global wheat production due to global vulnerability of the wheat germplasm towards this disease.
For the past year Edgar has been working as a research assistant with Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project, in collaboration with Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Organization (KALRO) in Njoro, Kenya. The project mainly screens wheat germplasms all over the world for Ug99 and its variants and six distinct lines within the Ug99 lineage have been identified in Kenya alone. Edgar hopes his time with the Borlaug LEAP fellowship will help further his work and allow for better protection against wheat stem rust in the future. He understands that research like this is vital to improving food security and the income potential of millions of farmers across Africa and beyond and hopes to lead the field in this endeavor.
During his fellowship period Edgar will be working in both at CIMMYT in Kenya and at the University of Minnesota (UMN). He will be under the mentorship of Dr. Les Szabo, a research geneticist working at the USDA-ARS Cereal Disease Laboratory (CDL) at UMN. Dr. Szabo's lab focuses on developing a better understanding of the host-parasite interactions and the evolution of rust fungi. In addition to this, his lab has developed genotyping tools for more in-depth analysis of wheat stem rust pathogens. Dr. Sridhar Bhavani, Edgar’s CGIAR mentor, is a wheat scientist working at CIMMYT on rust genetics, pathology and breeding. He currently coordinates the stem rust screening nurseries for East Africa under the DGGW program. He will mentor Edgar in thesis development and writing as well as linking the phenotypic data to the generated genotypic data. Edgar intends to finish his MSc studies by the end of December 2017.