Final Report to AATF on Maruca Resistant Cowpea 2011

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Higgins, TJ




Cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) has an annual production of 8-10 million tonnes, and is one of the most important food grain legumes in the tropics. Africa accounts for over 60 percent of the worldwide cowpea production. The major cowpea producing countries in Africa are Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Ghana. While cowpea leaves, green pods and green peas are consumed as human food, it is the protein-rich grains that constitute the main food product of the crop. In spite of the significance of cowpea as a food crop to millions of people on the continent, grain yields are low at an average of 0.3 tonnes/ha due to several biotic and abiotic stresses. The adverse effects of some of these yield-limiting factors could be ameliorated through better agronomy, while others require manipulation through breeding. Losses due to insect pests alone have been documented to sometimes exceed 90 percent. Even in cases where modest levels of insect resistance have been developed in certain cowpea varieties, there are virtually none with demonstrable resistance against Maruca pod borer (MPB), a serious field pest of cowpea, in the cultivated cowpea genome. Insect pests, especially lepidopterans, are known to be susceptible to Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) – a ubiquitous, soil-dwelling, spore-forming bacterium – when applied topically on crops as spore formulations. However, Bt sprays are often washed away by rain, degrade under solar ultra violet radiation and are not optimally targeted against certain insect pests that live within plant tissues (1). The limitations associated with the use of conventional methods in effectively dealing with cowpea’s pest problem makes the application of biotechnological procedures for overcoming the constraints to cowpea production particularly attractive. With advances in molecular and cellular biology, it is now possible to engineer genes into plant genomes that encode expression of crystal proteins (known as Cry proteins), thus providing the plant with built-in protection against lepidopterans such as MPB. This effort is currently under exploration by a coalition of institutions to reduce grain yield losses in cowpea in Africa. If the Bt gene, which confers resistance to the pod borer, is transferred into improved cowpea varieties, the need for insecticidal sprays to control the pod borer will be reduced and smallholder farmers can expect to increase their yields by over 20% and greatly enhance their food security and economic status.


Plant Biology not elsewhere classified

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Higgins, TJ. Final Report to AATF on Maruca Resistant Cowpea 2011. CSIRO; 2012.

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