UA Receives Grand Challenges Exploration Grants

Two researchers in the UA School of Plant Sciences and members of the BIO5 Institute have been awarded grants by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for research addressing global health challenges.
Nov. 1, 2012
Zhongguo Xiong
Zhongguo Xiong
Monica Schmidt
Monica Schmidt

The University of Arizona announced today that it is a Grand Challenges Explorations winner, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The UA grant recipients are Zhongguo Xiong and Monica Schmidt, both in the School of Plant Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Their projects are two of more than 80 Grand Challenges Explorations Round 9 grants announced today by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  

Grand Challenges Explorations, or GCE, funds individuals worldwide who are taking innovative approaches to some of the world’s toughest and persistent global health and development challenges. GCE invests in the early stages of bold ideas that have real potential to solve the problems people in the developing world face every day.

“Investments in innovative global health research are already paying off,” said Chris Wilson, director of global health discovery and translational sciences at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“We continue to be impressed by the novelty and innovative spirit of Grand Challenges Explorations projects and are enthusiastic about this exciting research. These investments hold real potential to yield new solutions to improve the health of millions of people in the developing world and ensure that everyone has the chance to live a healthy productive life.”

Xiong, associate professor of plant sciences and member of the UA BIO5 Institute, will pursue an innovative global health and development research project, titled “Gene Editing to Create Immunity Against Cassava Brown Streak.”

“This is a perfect opportunity to apply state-of-the-art research to solving the problems of feeding the growing world population,” he said. “Cassava is the staple food in many parts of the world, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America.” 

According to the most recent figures available from the Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations, the cassava crop is a major food source for nearly 1 billion people in 105 countries, providing up to one-third of daily calorie intake.

“However, an emerging epidemic of the cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) in Africa has threatened the food and economic security in the continent. I am anxious to get the project going and to provide an innovative solution to this devastating problem,” Xiong said.

CBSD destroys the root tuber, the edible portion of cassava. Currently, no cassava varieties are resistant to the disease.

CBSD is caused by a small RNA virus that encodes only nine proteins. The virus requires many host proteins for reproduction and infection and recruits them through protein-protein interaction.  

“If we can modify the surface of the host protein by editing the host genes,” said Xiong, “we can disrupt the viral and host protein interaction and consequently stop the viral reproduction and infection, creating virus-immune cassavas.”

Schmidt, assistant professor of plant sciences and member of the UA BIO5 Institute, will pursue an innovative global health and development research project, titled “Aspergillus-resistant Aflatoxin-free Transgenic Groundnuts.”

“Millions of tons of crops are lost each year around the world due to aflatoxin contamination. Aflatoxin is one of the most potent carcinogenic compounds for both humans and animals,” Schmidt said. “We are excited about the opportunity to try and alleviate this problem. We are grateful to the Gates Foundation for taking bold steps in funding such research.”

Schmidt, who has a decade of legume transformation experience with particular focus on expression or suppression of seed traits, will work with co-principal investigator Dilip Shah, from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Mo., to produce an aflatoxin-free, Aspergillus-resistant ground nut.

The project is a novel idea that exploits likely synergy between two different strategies: one aimed at directly inhibiting the growth of the fungus in infected peanut tissues, and the other aimed at silencing the expression of genes encoding enzymes of the aflatoxin biosynthetic pathway.  

While the two strategies proposed here are likely to succeed independently, a combination of the two will result in providing more robust and durable resistance to A. flavus and aflatoxin in transgenic groundnut, Schmidt said.

To receive funding, Grand Challenges Explorations Round 9 winners demonstrated in a two-page online application a creative idea in one of five critical global heath and development topic areas that included agriculture development, immunization and communications. Applications for the current open round, Grand Challenges Explorations Round 10, will be accepted through Nov. 7.  

Grand Challenges Explorations is a $100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Launched in 2008, more than 700 people in 45 countries have received Grand Challenges Explorations grants.

The grant program is open to anyone from any discipline and from any organization. The initiative uses an agile, accelerated grant-making process with short two-page online applications and no preliminary data required. Initial grants of $100,000 are awarded two times a year.

Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to $1 million.