Westwood leads workshop on plant genomics and bioinformatics in Morocco

Group of Morocco workshop participants.

Participants of the workshop in Morocco.

A group of US researchers with expertise in parasitic plant genomics recently travelled to Morocco to exchange information and coordinate research with Moroccan colleagues. Over 10 days of discussions and field visits, the group sought to connect the fundamental biology of plant genomes with the goal of improving faba bean production in Morocco.

The parasitic plant Orobanche crenata (crenate broomrape) is a devastating weed in North Africa. It primarily attacks faba bean in Morocco, attaching to the roots of the crop and growing unseen in the soil until eventually producing a large floral shoot that emerges above ground. The effect of parasitism on this important crop is devastating, with yields reduced to zero under conditions of heavy parasite infestation. Despite decades of plant breeding effort, few cultivars of faba bean have resistance to the parasite and has led to a precipitous decline in acreage under faba bean cultivation. Into this grim situation the new technologies of genomics brings hope of understanding plant parasitism and breeding improved faba bean varieties that can withstand Orobanche attack. The Moroccan government recently began to invest in “next-generation” sequencing technology with the goal of improving faba bean and other crops of national importance. However, although next generation sequencing is powerful, it generates massive quantities of data that pose new challenges for analysis and interpretation.

The highlight of the visit was a workshop entitled “Genomics and Bioinformatics for Agricultural Research,” held in Rabat, Morocco, from April 14-17. The workshop was co-organized by Jim Westwood from the Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology and Weed Science at Virginia Tech and Rachid Mentag, leader of the Biotechnology Food Legume research group at the Moroccan National Institute for Agricultural Research. The visit was part of an NSF Plant Genome Program funded project led by Westwood that aims to identify the key genes associated with parasitism in plants.

The workshop was designed to cover both broad and specific aspects of genomics. The first day consisted of plenary lectures on topics related to plant genomics, bioinformatics, and crop improvement and included presentations by members of the U.S. team and scientists from INRA and International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, and was attended by 108 researchers and students. The following days consisted of more focused discussions with a smaller subset of about 30 participants and included presentations on genomics approaches to breeding, with a special session devoted to genotyping and breeding of date palm, a crop of national pride to Morocco (and the designated first target for Moroccan genomics analyses). The final days consisted of presentations and discussions on genomics of parasitic weeds and included a field trip to observe Orobanche crop damage in research test plots and farmer fields. Notably, the bioinformatics content of the workshop was of such interest that an additional half day session was held on April 21 to provide a hands-on training and Q & A session for the Moroccan students.

Members of the US team all served as presenters and/or discussion leaders in multiple sessions during the workshop. The team consisted of Professor Jim Westwood and Postdoctoral Associate Gunjune Kim from Virginia Tech, Professor John Yoder and Daniel Steele, Ph.D. student, from the UC Davis, and Postdoctoral Associate Loren Honaas from Penn State University. Moroccan partner organizations included INRA, ICARDA, and  Moroccan National Center for Science and Technology Research, which provided venues for the workshop, supported travel for attendees from throughout Morocco, provided food for all participants during the workshop, and supplied transportation for the U.S. team during the entire visit.

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