In late May, Kyle travelled to Ethiopia to meet with farmers, NGOs, and universities.. Our initial project idea was to detect certain avirulence factors secreted by Pgt, and based on the response from certain resistance genes, determine if a farmer’s specific line of wheat would be resistant to the races of stem rust that were present or not. However, many of the farmers were unaware of what specific resistance genes their lines of wheat had. Therefore, we altered our project design to include a general detection mechanism for stem rust in addition to the race-specific detection in order to provide the information that would be most helpful to some of the farmers that would be aided by the results of our project.
In June, Kyle met with farmers, NGOs, and governmental organizations in Uganda. His work in Uganda showed, once again, the need for a general stem rust detection mechanism. The farmers also provided significant feedback on the hardware of the project, what information they wanted the hardware to display, and what was most feasible and convenient technologically for them. In addition, due to this visit, we recognized the need for an educational component of our project to allow farmers to use the resources available to them, such as the various forms of pesticides, safely and effectively.
Cam met with Victor Mowatt, the CEO of Bulk Ag Innovations, an agricultural technology company, to discuss our hardware. He was worried that our device could be knocked down and potentially crushed in a field that used agricultural machinery. Therefore, while we originally intended to have multiple devices around a field with built in spore traps, we decided to design a device that could be housed in a separate location with detachable spore traps that could be hung around the field’s periphery where they would not be affected by machinery.
Our team met with several plant pathologists at the Monsanto Research Center who had previously worked with wheat rust resistance genes. They reviewed our project design and made recommendations of other experts in the field to reach out to. Previously, we had intended on expressing Sr35 intracellularly, where it would interact with AvrSr35 secreted by Pgt. However, they recognized that although AvrSr35 can enter wheat cells, it is not necessarily able to enter yeast cells, and suggested that we use Aga2 to display Sr35 on the surface of our yeast cells to eliminate the issue of AvrSr35 entering the yeast cells altogether. Although our project design focuses on demonstrating the interaction of Sr35 and AvrSr35 inside yeast cells first, we incorporated this advice into the future direction of our project by improving the Aga2 + linker (BBa_K2663004) part in the iGEM registry so that it would later be ready to incorporate into our Sr35 mechanism.
Missouri Coalition for the Environment
We also met with Melissa Vatterott J.D., who is the director of the Food and Farm program for the Missouri Coalition for the environment. Ms. Vatterott is helping the Missouri Coalition for the Environment advocate for the decreased use of pesticides and GMOs. We asked Ms. Vatterott about her thoughts on our project since we are technically recommending the use of fungicides, a pollutant and harmful to the crops and user’s health when used incorrectly. She thought that our project could be a valuable tool if it provided farmers a way to minimize the use of fungicides by advising them to use them only when helpful to prevent crop loss. She liked how we were already going to pair it with an educational program and adapt it to local culture and considerations. Our conversation provided valuable insight into how fungicide contributes toward damaging the environment, and how our team needed to be cognisant of the negative externalities our project might have.
Meeting with Professors
We spoke with Dr. Shanti Parikh who has extensive anthropological research experience in the region of Uganda where we met with farmers. She suggested that it would be wrong for us to develop an educational program for farmers. She suggested that this would be far inferior to that developed by ugandan students and farmers themselves. It would be best to have a strategy where we empowered education and change in farming practices to come from within. She cited successful work done by another professor at Washington University, Penina Acayo Laker in award winning malaria education strategies.
Dr. Jim Feher P.E. helped us choose components to use for the hardware as well as strategizing for how to get the best response from the arduino to reduce noise by utilizing different sampling patterns.
Meeting with Microsoft
Cam met with Ervin Flores, general manager of the Microsoft Mid-America district, at the beginning of June to discuss technology collaboration and the human impact of Pgt. This led to our official partnership with the company. We then received a Microsoft Surface as a “digital lab notebook”, plus several appointments with experts in modeling, cloud computing, and hardware.
In Mid-July, Dr. Thomas Abraham and Bryan Roberts met with us to discuss future direction for our device. They suggested using a Raspberry Pi instead of Arduino for our device in order to maximise its future capabilities. They gave us resources within Microsoft in Washington that interface directly with agricultural companies and NGO’s. They also gave us advice on 3D printing our device chassis. After a long discussion, they agreed with us that using Microsoft Azure for a cloud-based software solution for governments to track Pgt would not be feasible for our project time frame. They then made themselves available for a biweekly chat to check in on our project.
Our team met with Dr. Shah, a researcher at the Danforth Plant Sciences Center who studies plant defensin proteins, another method of innate plant resistance to fungal pathogens. He compared resistance and defensin proteins, noted the benefits and drawbacks, and discussed how both are being studied as methods of providing durable resistance to pathogen infection. Prior to our meeting with Dr. Shah, our team had intended to use a polystyrene membrane for our spore trap based on what we had previously read in literature. However, Dr. Shah informed us that any hydrophobic material could be used as a spore trap, so we decided to change the material of our membrane to polyethylene with a lower environmental impact.