Cassava Virus Action Project

Approximately 800 million people rely on cassava globally, either as a source of food or a source of income. But cassava is being devastated by two viruses, both transmitted by the whitefly: Cassava mosaic disease and Cassava brown streak disease. The Cassava Virus Action Project ( is a network of researchers, farmers and others, collaborating to use genomic technologies to improve the management of these cassava viruses. DNA analysis of the virus, quickly and close to the crop, can help farmers to decide what action to take. We have empowered local communities to take decisions that maximize their crops while also minimizing the spread of these whitefly-borne viruses. For the first time, farmers struggling with diseased cassava crops can take immediate, positive action to save their livelihoods based on information about the health of their plants generated using a portable, real-time DNA analysis device. The project aims to reduce the risk of community crop failure and help preserve livelihoods. Oxford Nanopore Technologies portable MinION was used to identify which strain of virus was destroying the cassava crops of farmers in Tanzania and Uganda as part of the Cassava Virus Action Project. As the MinION delivers the information in real time (compared to the usual three months), farmers were able to take action much faster. For example, one was advised to destroy the crop and plant a different variety that is more resistant to the virus. In this talk I will outline how our team is using supercomputing, genomics, mobile DNA sequencing technology and teamwork to impact the lives of millions. The team’s latest work to bring portable DNA sequencing to east African farmers has been featured on CNN, BBC World News, BBC Swahili, BBC Technology News, and the TED Fellows Ideas Blog.

Dr. Laura Boykin is a TED Senior Fellow (2017), Gifted Citizen (2017) and a computational biologist who uses genomics and supercomputing to help smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa control whiteflies, which have caused devastation of local cassava crops. Her lab at The University of Western Australia uses genetic data to understand the virus and whitefly’s evolution. Boykin also works to equip African scientists with a greater knowledge of genomics and high-performance computing skills to tackle future insect outbreaks. Boykin completed her PhD in Biology at the University of New Mexico while working at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the Theoretical Biology and Biophysics group, and is currently a Senior Research Fellow at University of Western Australia. She was invited to present her lab’s research on whiteflies at the United Nations Solution Summit in New York City for the signing of the Sustainable Development Goals to end extreme poverty by 2030. The team’s latest work to bring portable DNA sequencing to east African farmers has been featured on CNN, BBC World News, BBC Swahili, BBC Technology News, and the TED Fellows Ideas Blog.

Dr. Joseph Ndunguru is the head of the Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute in Tanzania and principle investigator of several research projects. These include being the regional coordinator of Disease Diagnostics for Sustainable Cassava Productivity in Africa, co-funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and DFID, a project implemented in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia. In September 2012, Joseph received a Presidential medal award on Scientific Discoveries and Research Excellence, and an award for the best National Agricultural Research Scientist for 2011. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology and is also the National Biotechnology Research Coordinator in Tanzania. His research interest is to understand plant viruses at the molecular level, their genome organization, gene expression and to develop resistance to plant viruses of economic importance to Africa. Cassava mosaic geminiviruses, cassava brown streak virus and sweet potato viruses are his main focus for now.

Dr. Titus Alicai is a plant virologist and Principal Research Officer and programme leader of Root Crops Research at the National Agricultural Research Organisation National Crops Resources Research Institute in Kampala Uganda. He is currently leading a team of 150 staff including 7 PhD and 9 MSc students. Dr. Alicai’s formal education includes a PhD in Plant Virology from the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Greenwich in the U.K and MSc and BSc in Agriculture from Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda. His groundbreaking research on cassava viruses is internationally recognized and has been published in journals such as PNAS and Plant Pathology. His leadership and research excellence has led to securing over 5 million dollars in grant funding for continued support of his cassava virus research from organizations such as USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Recent publications

Ateka, E. et al. Unusual occurrence of a DAG motif in the Ipomovirus Cassava brown streak virus and implications for its vector transmission. PLoS ONE 12, (2017).

Authors: Laura Boykin, Joseph Ndunguru & Titus Alicai