For 40 years, team work has been the central pillar of the entomology and pathology laboratory in CIAT´s Tropical Forages Program. The team´s main task is to evaluate damage to pastures caused by an insect pest commonly known as the spittlebug and a disease whose scientific name is Rhizoctonia solani.
“The spittlebug is an insect pest of Neotropical origin, which is found in various countries, including Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico. It absorbs nutrients from the roots of pastures, reducing their nutritional quality. The insect´s name comes from the spittle-like substance it secretes, covering its entire body.”Luis Miguel Hernández
Outbreaks of this pest and disease pose a constant threat to pasture productivity, resulting in serious losses to the livestock sector. Spittlebug in particular is considered to be the most damaging pest of pastures in Colombia. Severe attacks can drastically reduce forage quality, affecting weight gain in livestock.
“In Colombia alone, the economic value of losses caused by spittlebug is estimated to exceed US$200 million anually. In search of solutions, members of the team help develop pasture varieties that are genetically resistant to insect attack,” said Hernández.
“We work like ants”
Members of the laboratory team include Luis Miguel Hernández, its coordinator, together with Jeison Velasco, William Mera, and Ximena Bonilla, whose job is to mass rear insects and cultivate the disease pathogen for use in trials to determine forage reaction. “We determine which ones are resistant to spittlebug and Rhizoctonia, and which are susceptible,” said Velasco.
“We work like ants as a team, constantly providing feedback to address new challenges in our evaluation trials. We have a clear division of responsibilities but focus on the shared objective of obtaining varieties that are resistant to multiple spittlebug species and Rhizoctonia.”William Mera
The research is led by John W. Miles, a plant breeder with CIAT´s Tropical Forages Program, who works with the team to develop new varieties that offer higher yields, improved forage quality, pest and disease resistance, and tolerance to stresses like drought and flooding, among other traits.
Over the last 6 years, the team has conducted 21 trials in the Forage Program´s greenhouses to test for pest and disease resistance.
Carried out in collaboration with the Program´s other teams (physiology, plant genetics, and plant nutrition), this work has led to the development of hybrids like Mulato II, Caimán, and Cobra, among others, which significantly improve livestock feeding. With unimproved pastures, it is possible to maintain only one head of livestock per hectare, but the new hybrids can feed up to four in the same area.
The success of this team is due in large part to the respect that each team member shows for the work of the others and for their ideas and suggestions.
At this point, the team does not yet have a full understanding of the factors that account for forage resistance to spittlebug and Rhizoctonia.
“We don´t yet know in detail what´s happening inside the plant, so our challenge is to determine the factors conferring resistance and identify the genes that account for this resistance,” said Hernández.
He adds that the team in the forages entomology and pathology laboratory is on the alert for new pests and diseases that may threaten pastures.