Kenya: Lecturer Wins Huge Award for Reining in Lethal Cereal Killer

10 August 2020

The sight of Prof Steven Runo in sorghum fields in Kibos, Alupe or Mbita, all in western Kenya, would be less alluring.

But it is the work in those fields and under the scorching heat of the lake region that saw him win this year's Royal Society Africa Prize for the best scientific research.

Prof Runo was last week named the winner of the prestigious Royal Society Arica Prize, which celebrates Africa's top scientists who excel in practical research. The award comes with a cash prize of British Sterling Pounds 15,000 or Sh2.1 million for research plus additional personal cash award of British Pounds 2,000s (Sh280,000) and a bronze medal. The prizes will be awarded in London later this year.

"The Royal Society Africa Prize 2020 is awarded to Dr Steven Runo for elucidating pathways for long distance RNA trafficking between parasitic plants and their hosts and identifying and developing transgenic protocol for characterising and validating candidate host and parasite genes," the Society said in a statement.

Food shortage

Soft-spoken and reserved, Prof Runo would easily pass for any other lecturer at Kenyatta University. But beneath the veneer is a rare kind of scientist, a believer in action research and strong conviction to use scientific knowledge to make a difference in society.

Acutely aware of the perennial food shortage that afflicts millions of Kenyans and the rest of the continent, his desire is to use his knowledge in plant science to transform agriculture and particularly crop protection to achieve food sufficiency.

Prof Runo is the head of Biochemistry Microbiology and Biotechnology Department at Kenyatta University. His specialty is plant molecular biology. A mouthful, one would say, but which in plain terms means studying the nutrients of plants and using that knowledge to change their biological composition and make them resistant to weeds.

The research that has brought honour and glory to Kenya is on the use of plant nutrients to kill parasites. In scientific terms, it is about controlling parasites using what they call RNA interference. And the parasite in question here is Striga, the pink coloured weed that kills maize, sorghum and millet and largely prevalent in western Kenya. The other name of the parasite is witchweed, literally and appropriately, a killer plant.

Essentially, Prof Runo's research involves studying the nutrients that Striga eats from host crops and using that knowledge, graft similar but poisonous variety of the nutrients that is injected in the host crops to make it resistant to parasitic attacks.

Striga attacks

The research is concentrated on sorghum, maize and millet, main food crops around the country, but which are vulnerable to Striga attacks. According to agricultural research, Striga is one of the most lethal weeds.

According to Prof Runo, parasitic plants establish what is called vascular connection with the host plant through structures termed haustoria, which allow acquisition of water and nutrients, often to the detriment of the infected host.

The parasitic plant extracts the nutrients from the host plant, either killing it or rendering it unable to produce crops. That is why when Striga strikes a maize farm, for instance, it will strangle the crop and leave the farmer without any yield.

"What we do is gene editing, where we study the nutrients that parasitic plants like Striga suck from the host plants and from that, we develop similar biological nutrients, inject them in the host crops and ultimately kill the parasites," says Prof Runo.

The concept, he explains, is similar to what doctors do; that of gene editing. It involves examining the composition of one's DNA and developing similar elements that are injected into human beings to give them immunity against viruses that cause diseases, such as polio vaccination.

"The overall objective of our research is to achieve food security," says Prof Runo. "We have been working with seed companies to develop crops that are resistant to parasites based on the research we have done."

He adds: "My interest is to support farmers and ensure they get value from their sweat."

So, rather than confine his research to KU laboratories and only with his students, Prof Runo has adopted a public-facing approach. He works with Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research (Kalro) centres in Kibos in Kisumu County, Alupe in Busia and Mbita in Homa Bay and seed companies to translate academic research into practical use. The outcome of the research is to benefit farmers.

According to research studies in agriculture, Striga (witchweed) is one of the most lethal pests that affect food production in the tropics. For example, the studies say that in Kenya, the parasite leads to yield losses of between 65 and 100 per cent.

In our context where farmlands are shrinking due to increased population and urbanisation, demand for food is fast rising. In turn, farmers are forced into intense land use that degrade soils. With that, parasites such as Striga are on the increase as they seek places to survive.

This explains the significance of Prof Runo's research. It strikes at the heart of what confounds farmers and for which immediate solution is imperative.

Ordinarily, farmers have used pesticides and herbicides to deal with such marauding parasites, but it has since emerged that those practices are in themselves harmful to farmlands in the long run. Moreover, their consistent use also affects farmers.

Parasite control

In an interview with Higher Education, the soft-spoken academician says his research interests are in the fields of parasite control through genetic engineering.

His desire is to translate that knowledge into dealing with weeds that do harm to farmers and make a difference in their lives. Lately, he has developed interest in research on swabs for testing for Covid-19.

Prof Runo believes that the award will inspire more Kenyans to conduct research and in particular, stimulate interest among high school and college students to study sciences.

Importantly, he hopes the award will send a strong statement to the government and other potential funders that Kenya has solid researchers and therefore should be funded to conduct research to provide solutions to challenges of our times.

The research that won him the award was a carry-over from his PhD in Plant Molecular Biology, which he did through a sandwich programme between the University of California, Davis, US and Kenyatta University. Earlier, he did a MSc in biotechnology and a BSc in biochemistry, both at Kenyatta University.

Besides, he did a postdoctoral research in molecular biology at the University of Sheffield in UK. He has also been a visiting researcher in genomics at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville USA.

The Royal Society Africa Prize recognises research scientists based in Africa who are making an innovative contribution to the sciences. The prize was previously the Royal Society Pfizer Award which was last awarded in 2016.

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