Agriculture News

March 22, 2017

Borlaug Fellowship provides Kenyan student with opportunity to end maize virus

Leitich_Maize Maize lethal necrosis, also known as MLN disease, destroys nearly 100 percent of the corn crop in eastern Africa. (Purdue University photo) Download image

When Robert Leitich came to Purdue University in 2016, he was interested in more than continuing his education for personal reasons. The Kenyan was in search of solutions regarding a new disease affecting corn production in his country — which posed a threat to millions of people.

In Kenya, just going to school was challenging for Leitich. In his senior year of high school, his father had to sell a piece of land to pay school fees. Leitich completed his master’s degree in crop protection in 2015 and began to pursue his doctorate. In 2016, he was awarded a scholarship through U.S. Borlaug Fellows in Global Food Security. The program, which has a goal to end world hunger, is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agriculutral Service.

“I believe no situation is permanent in life. It’s through challenges that we get to realize our potential,” said Leitich (pronounced Lī-tish), who studied maize lethal necrosis with professors and researchers at Purdue University.

Maize lethal necrosis, also known as MLN disease, destroys nearly 100 percent of the corn crop in eastern Africa. Driven by his passion for plant pathology, Leitich was committed to make the most of his fellowship opportunity to help farmers in his homeland.

With that goal in mind, Leitich brought dried plant samples from Kenya to Purdue to join a 12-week cooperative research effort with Purdue’s Department of Botany and Plant Pathology and International Programs in Agriculture.

Lonni Kucik, program assistant for the Department of International Programs in Agriculture (IPIA) sends proposals to department heads based on the research interest of the fellows. Kucik also provides travel assistance, cultural orientation and administrative support for international collaborations.

Kucik found a placement for Leitich with two mentors in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology — Guri Johal, professor in molecular pathology and genetics and Sue Loesch-Fries, associate professor of molecular virology. Johal and Loesch-Fries agreed to share the responsibilities as Borlaug mentors.

Leitich_Borlug Driven by his passion for plant pathology, Robert Leitich was committed to make the most of his opportunity to find a solution. (Purdue University photo) Download image

“This time-commitment would not have been possible without the expert logistical and training assistance of Lonni,” Loesch-Fries said.

Johal’s expertise is maize immunity especially to fungal diseases. Loesch-Fries’ expertise is in virology. It became a winning combination and beneficial to all. 

“We started Robert out with simple procedures such as the use of a thermocycler to amplify DNA segments,” Loesch-Fries said. “He then began extracting RNA from healthy material and he rapidly took off from there. He had a strong desire to learn all he could here to accomplish the goals for his Ph.D. Robert was quick to understand new information and to use it for his study of MLN. ”

Leitich was able to do work at Purdue that would not have been possible in his country. “In Kenya, a hierarchy exists that inhibits creativity, Johal said. “Robert came to us as a student and once he began to feel comfortable, he became energized by the freedom he found to create. His mindset changed and he became a different person.”

It turns out Leitich was not the only one changed by the experience.

“It’s changed me as a person,” Johal said of his participation in Borlaug Fellows program. “It’s an investment of time and effort but with that comes the benefits of building new networks globally and the opportunity to train a new generation of scientists. On a personal level, participation in the program brings satisfaction and wisdom.” 

Part of Leitich’s research was to learn a new technique in mutation breeding technique to produce seeds that would be resistant to the MLN virus. “This technique — dubbed NextGEM (next generation mutagenesis)— has a huge potential in crops. A patent application to protect this technique has been filed at Purdue,” Johal said.

Johal and Loesch-Fries believe Leitich’s visit will make a difference for his country as he takes the process for producing new variations of maize back to Kenya.

“It’s this kind of collaborative effort that sometimes results in research breakthroughs or grant funding,” said Johal.

This cooperative collaboration is named for 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman E. Borlaug, who is credited with transforming crop management and production to prevent hunger and famine, first in Mexico and then around the world. Borlaug is credited with saving more lives than any other person. In 1986 Borlaug founded the World Food Prize, often referred to as the Nobel Prize for food and agriculture, to improve the quality, quantity, and availability of food in the world. 

Purdue boasts two World Food Prize laureates, Philip E. Nelson in 2007 for developing aseptic food storage and Gebisa Ejeta in 2009 for producing sorghum varieties resistant to drought and striga infestation.

Leitich attended the 2016 Norman E. Borlaug World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa, making valuable connections before returning home.

Johal and Loesch-Fries will travel to Kenya for a collaborative visit in June 2017. They believe the new method and skill sets that Leitich learned to produce new variation will be used to eliminate this maize virus not just in Kenya but throughout Africa.

The Purdue International Programs in Agriculture program offers five to 10 research opportunities for Borlaug fellows each spring. For more information on how to participate in the Borlaug Fellowship Program, contact Lonni Kucik at or 765-494-8461.

Writer: Cheri Frederick,, (765) 494-2406

Contact: Shari Finnell,, (765) 494-2722

Agricultural Communications: (765) 494-8415;
Shari Finnell, Manager/Media Relations and Public Information,  
Agriculture News Page

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