Ohio State iAGRI Graduate Curbing the Devastating Effects of Rice Blast Disease

Oct. 3, 2016
Emmanuel Mgonja successfully completed his PhD requirements in the Department of Plant Pathology at The Ohio State University this past summer. Emmanuel, who took a leave from his job at the Katrin Agricultural Research Institute in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania researched the molecular mechanisms of resistance to rice blast in Africa.
Rice blast, a disease caused by a fungus Magnaporthe oryzae, produces lesions on the leaves, stems, seeds, and roots of rice plants and can be responsible for yield losses in rice as substantial as 70% in East Africa. 
His graduate research, entitled “Molecular Analysis of Host Resistance and Pathogenicity of Rice Blast in East Africa”, was overseen by his advisors Dr. Guo Liang Wang and Dr. Tom Mitchell in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences’ Department of Plant Pathology. Dr. Robert Mabagala, from the Sokoine University of Agriculture’s (SUA) Department of Crop Science and Horticulture, was Emmanuel’s Tanzanian supervisor.

In 2012, Emmanuel received a fellowship to complete his Ph.D. studies at Ohio State through the support of the Innovative Agricultural Research Initiative (iAGRI) - a major Feed the Future project funded by the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID) and administered by the Office of International Programs in Agriculture in Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. He previously had completed his MS at Tokyo University of Agriculture in Japan studying Rice Yellow Mottle Virus (Sobemovirus) in Tanzania.
In addition to strengthening collaborative research linkages and facilitating institutional capacity development at SUA, human resource capacity building is one of the other major objectives of the iAGRI project. As one of many well-rounded graduates supported by the iAGRI project, Emmanuel can now utilize the newest technologies for applied research in plant pathology, genetics, and breeding back in Tanzania.  Another Ohio State iAGRI student, Elias Balimponya, worked on his M.S. research in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science in conjunction with Emmanuel.  With rice samples from Africa, Emmanuel learned gene mapping and sequencing from molecular analysis experts at Ohio State, and found 56 loci associated with rice blast resistance. Of these, 43 were newly identified. 

Additionally, he found that 30 rice cultivars are highly resistant to rice blast populations in Africa. These cultivars were further screened in Cotonou, Benin with additional funding from a prestigious award from the Norman E. Borlaug Leadership Enhancement in Agriculture Program (Borlaug LEAP), in which Emmanuel worked with at Dr. Drissa Silue, a plant pathologist at AfricaRice, during the summer of 2016. Emmanuel’s identification of DNA markers linked to two major resistance genes and highly resistant cultivars is knowledge that can now be immediately used by rice breeders in Africa.  Emmanuel looks forward to utilizing these findings which has the potential to reduce yield loss by 20% in rice, one of the most consumed staple crops and essential for family consumption and income generation in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Going forward, Emmanuel will be an invaluable asset in identifying challenges, exploring solutions, and ultimately increasing food security in Tanzania and throughout East Africa.  He has already published one paper in the journal Phytopathology, and submitted a second.  In 2015, he presented a poster at the American Phytopathological Society Annual Meeting (APS) on his research.
As Emmanuel explains, “Thanks to my scholarship to study in the United States, I was able to add to my previous MS research in Japan, and gained valuable insight that has enabled me to complete my research. Throughout this experience at Ohio State, funded by the iAGRI project, I have learned important leadership skills and appreciate the opportunity to have collaborated with an international community of plant pathologists.”