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Fighting a Destructive Crop Disease with Mathematics

08:33 EDT 21 Jun 2017 | Meridian Institute

An international team of researchers is using mathematical modeling to battle maize lethal necrosis (MLN), a disease that poses a serious threat to food security in sub-Saharan Africa. In Kenya, the disease has caused devastating harvest losses of up to 90 percent in the hardest hit areas. MLN, this article notes, is the result of two viruses interacting; most traditional modeling has focused on understanding just one virus at a time. By modeling the two viruses together, the team has been able to shed light on the disease, potentially helping farmers manage it more effectively. The team found that a combination of crop rotation, using virus-free “clean seed,” removing plants showing disease symptoms, and controlling insect pests is the best way to control MLN. "Larger growers have more money for insecticides and buying clean seed, both of which can greatly reduce disease levels. Crop rotation - an important component of control for smaller growers - disrupts transmission from season to season, but it requires coordination between farmers to ensure the virus doesn't build up in surrounding fields. Unless significant investment is made in farmer training, this unfortunately remains more realistic for larger farmers, who tend to be better organized and to have larger growing areas," said Dr. Nik Cunniffe, an expert in mathematical biology at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, who contributed to the work. The team’s findings could also inform the management and control of other destructive plant disease caused by combined pathogens, such as the sweet potato virus disease in Africa and rice tungro disease in Asia. The study was published in the journal Phytopathology.

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