Nebraska and Morocco are separated by 4,700 miles, but their agricultural sectors share an important connection. Whether in America’s mid-section or northwest coastal Africa, wheat producers know that fungus-borne plant disease, including root rot and head blight, can devastate their production.
It was only a few years ago, in 2015, that head blight reached “epidemic” levels for a significant portion of Nebraska’s wheat fields, noted Stephen Wegulo, a University of Nebraska–Lincoln plant pathologist specializing in wheat disease epidemiology and management.
The university is pursuing an international collaboration with Morocco that can boost wheat disease research and strengthen prevention strategies against fungus-enabled wheat diseases. The partnership also can open opportunities for student exchanges to prepare Moroccan and American graduate students for careers in plant science.
Wegulo, a professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and Nebraska Extension specialist, visited Morocco this spring, meeting with researchers and leaders with the country’s National Institute for Agricultural Research.
Fungus-enabled plant diseases such as root rot, crown rot and head blight raise serious concerns for wheat producers worldwide, said Wegulo, who devotes extensive research to the Fusarium genus of fungus associated with those diseases.
Fusarium head blight, for example, “is a very serious disease in terms of reducing the yield and then causing the grain to be unfit for human and animal consumption” due to fungal production of harmful byproducts known as mycotoxins, he said. In the United States, grain elevators reduce payment once the mycotoxin level exceeds a certain threshold and will reject the wheat entirely if the mycotoxin presence far exceeds the federally designated limit.
“So the grower loses in multiple ways” when Fusarium head blight strikes, Wegulo said.
Research into wheat disease epidemiology and management is also important for Morocco, where grains such as wheat and barley are the No. 1 agricultural product, and the country’s population is heavily dependent on cereals as a food source. Yet the yield reduction and mycotoxin contamination from wheat diseases is significant in Morocco, undercutting the country’s agricultural productivity and harming public health.
Fatiha Bentata, a plant pathologist with Morocco’s National Institute for Agricultural Research, visited the University of Nebraska–Lincoln for 11 weeks last fall and worked with Wegulo on wheat research. Bentata was one of eight scientists and professionals from Africa who studied with Husker faculty to deepen the visitors’ understanding of plant pathology, food science and agricultural economics.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service funded the initiative as part of its Scientific Exchanges Program.
During her visit, Bentata worked with Wegulo to study a set of varied Fusarium fungal isolates to see whether they differed in the amount of disease they caused to wheat roots. The scientists also tested a set of wheat varieties to see whether they differed in their resistance to root and crown rot caused by the Fusarium fungus.
Some of the wheat varieties showed considerable resistance, while others proved very susceptible, Wegulo said. Some of the fungus isolates “were more aggressive. They caused more root rot than others.” This research provided the scientists with a general approach to identify wheat varieties with greater resistance to Fusarium-caused diseases.
In future research, Wegulo and Bentata will see if a wheat variety’s increased resistance to root and crown rot can also provide increased resistance to Fusarium head blight. The aim, Wegulo said, is to find “a good variety that will resist the disease and have good agronomic performance, as well.”
During his Morocco visit, Wegulo found that just as Nebraska has a major variance in annual rainfall from the Panhandle (16-inch average) to southeastern Nebraska (35-inch average), Morocco has a similar variance between its wetter northwest region and much drier areas elsewhere.
Modest precipitation is, in fact, a key challenge for Moroccan agriculture. As a result, the country’s agricultural research focuses primarily on drought resistance, along with disease resistance. Wegulo was impressed when, as part of his travels to various ag-research facilities, he saw that Moroccans have made considerable advances in developing wheat varieties “that can survive on a fairly low amount of moisture.”
The USDA-funded Scientific Exchanges Program is intended to foster long-term academic collaborations between U.S. scholars and scientists abroad, and Wegulo discussed the possibilities for sustained academic interchange during his Morocco visit. He and Bentata aim to collaborate on future research projects.
Graduate-student exchanges between the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and Morocco are another possibility being discussed. “For example,” Wegulo said, “a graduate student doing a master’s or Ph.D. could come here and do a year of their work and learn new techniques for their research and future career.” Husker grad students, in turn, would have opportunities to study in Morocco.
“We could mentor students like that and expose them to different environments to enrich them academically,” he said. “I think they would benefit, because in the end, we want the knowledge we get to help the entire world.”