Entry: Lewis Dobgima Levai, 2008 Borlaug Fellow, IRAD, Cameroon
Mentor: Professor Thomas Gianfagna, Department of Biology and Plant Pathology
I wish to thank the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF) for the opportunity given me to take part in this round of the Norman E. Borlaug International Agriculture Science and Technology Fellowship Program. I left Douala, Cameroon on October 03, 2008 and had a safe trip to New Brunswick, New Jersey. Professor Gianfagna was there to welcome us and helped us settled down, and we visited the laboratory to familiarize me with the environment that I will be working in over the next six weeks.
Due to collaborative talks that we had prior to my arrival, microbial cultures had been prepared for me thanks to Mahdu Aneja, who also works in the lab. Work was very intense during the first week as we set up experiments to evaluate some metabolites against toxigenic fungi that grow on cocoa beans after harvest. During this week, we also met with Dr. Prakash Hebbar, whose contribution was very helpful and opened other avenues for the research we were going to be conducting over the coming weeks.
The program we then adopted was to carry out plate assays as well as assays on cocoa pod segments to see if we could use metabolites, mainly Nonanoic acid and Kojic acid to either stop or to reduce the growth of toxigenic fungi on cocoa pods. These fungi (mainly Aspergillus ochraceus) have been shown to be introduced into the pods after wounding of the cocoa pod during harvest by the machete of harvesters as they pick up the pods into their baskets. The fungus then grows during the period that the pods are kept before fermentation and even during fermentation.
During the second week of the fellowship, we were opportune to take part in the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa. During our stay in Des Moines, we were delighted to have Dr. Norman Borlaug with us at a Luncheon he offered us on Wednesday. He unfortunately took ill and left shortly after. We wish him a speedy recovery. There were several side events organized by USDA which we attended. The peak of the meeting was the handing of the 2008 World Food Prize Award to the laureates, former Senators George McGovern and Robert Dole at the Capitol Hill in Des Moines, Iowa. The award was given to them for their contribution to fight hunger around the world especially in children.
During my stay in Des Moines, I was able to meet most especially Ed Seguine, a sustaining member at WCF and Vice President of the Guittard Company. The discussions with him were very fruitful and it helped open new avenues for research. He also enlightened me about the scope of WCF.
I came to the United States with ideas that I wished to accomplish. I am leaving with some of these ideas accomplished, new accomplished ideas that I did not think off, and collaboration with my mentor, Prof. Gianfagna that I am very optimistic will be sustained. The time we had was very short to accomplish the ideas that we had in mind but we are confident to take them up and continue our collaboration towards achieving these goals.
During my stay in Rutgers, we have been able to achieve the following;
1) Identified that these metabolites are promising in reducing the growth of the toxigenic Aspergillus ochraceus. Presently, the Nonanoic Acid is doing very well in plate cultures and I am returning with some cultures and the metabolites to try it out with cocoa pods. The greenhouse out in New Brunswick has just a couple of trees and a few pods. Cocoa is presently in season back in Cameroon so it is a great opportunity to immediately return and conduct these experiments on a larger scale.
2) We are also testing Aspergillus ochraceus for Kojic acid production. It has not been documented if it produces Kojic Acid. The experiment is going on and results will be obtained in the coming weeks.
3) Growth of non-toxigenic and the toxigenic fungi is also promising. Preliminary results show that the toxigenic grows slower and if we put in a fast growing relative, it could as well prevent the growth of the toxigenic fungi, Aspergillus ochraceus.
Most of these are preliminary results and we hope to confirm them in the near future as we continue research along these lines.
Concerning the work that I have done so far, I am going to put the small scale experiments that we have done on a larger scale within this cocoa season and be able to send samples back for analysis that cannot be performed at my Institute (and I am not sure yet if it can be done in Cameroon). We are hoping that this research that we are into will finally constitute part or entirely my PhD thesis.
As a general comment about the fellowship, it would be a very nice thing if this program is made a little longer to give appropriate time for the mentors and fellows to work towards addressing the issues that they raise and answer a few questions while they are still together.
It can also be nice (though a little difficult) if mentors can be put in touch with fellows for them to discuss about their research topics before they travel. This point really made my work interesting and easy at Rutgers and I am grateful for the ground work my mentor did to make my work worthwhile.
Funding should also be secured to help equip fellows with the basic reagents and equipment to help fellows incorporate the techniques learnt during the fellowship in their laboratories when we return.
Once more, I am very grateful to USDA and WCF for fellowship and all the support.