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Improving global food security by controlling a persistent weed

The challenges of food production and global food security require a long-term, multi-pronged approach.

A large project in Burkino Faso and Niger is using genetic and hormone-based approaches to con­trol a persistent weed invading cereal crops, in efforts to improve local farmers’ yields and improve regional food security.

Professor of plant science Salim Al-Babili is leading a project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and KAUST, to prevent infesta­tions of purple witchweed (Striga hermonthica).

Purple witchweed is an invasive parasitic plant that infests cereal crops, particularly in Africa where it causes annual losses exceeding US$7 billion. The weeds survive by siphoning off water and nutrients from host crops, such as pearl millet.

The ambitious project involves collaborations with experts in chemistry, structural biology, bio­informatics, agronomy and weed science, genetics, and pearl millet breeding from KAUST, Japan, the Netherlands, Burkina Faso and Niger, in addition to an industrial partner, UPL.

Along with his collaborators, Al-Babili is using his knowledge of plant hormone biosynthesis to develop strategies to interrupt the interaction between the parasitic plant and its host, and to identify genetic factors that can help increase the resistance of pearl millet to Striga.

“We are trying to solve the huge problem of the accumulated seed bank of Striga in the soil. One plant can produce up to 200,000 seeds and these seeds can remain viable in the soil for up to 10 years,” says Al-Babili.

He says the challenges of leading and coordi­nating a project of this scale have been magnified during the pandemic.

“Developing scientific solutions for real-world problems requires intensive research in basic sci­ence”

The project spans the whole R&D process, from discovery work in the lab, to small greenhouse and mini-field experiments, to larger trials in fields of small-holder farmers.

“We have established a pipeline starting with devel­oping and synthesizing hormone-based compounds with our partner at the University of Tokyo, and involv­ing several biological tests at KAUST, and then in farmers’ fields in sub-Saharan Africa,” says Al-Babili.

“Developing scientific solutions for real-world problems requires intensive research in basic sci­ence. Once you have something in your hands that can be translated, you need to take a risk and, of course, you need reliable partners with comple­mentary expertise.

“I’m quite optimistic. The field trials with farm­ers look promising and now we have an industrial partner to improve the formulation, application protocol, etc.”

Al-Babili says major challenges for farmers in the region are the very poor infrastructure and infertile soils. They rely on local varieties, which are adapted to the conditions, but in many cases are not very productive.

On top of this, they face the challenges of climate change, higher temperatures and more frequent drought conditions.

He adds that, like many scientists, his dream is to see that what he is doing in the lab is also beneficial to humanity.

“Addressing huge challenges is what motivates me. It is very satisfying to publish papers and to solve scientific questions, but the satisfaction you gain when you see that your work is helping to solve a major global challenge is quite extraordinary.”