College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
AGNR Research

University of Maryland Professor Receives $720k Grant from NSF to Eliminate “Coffee Rust” Disease in Costa Rica

Collaborative project with Ohio State University to examine several species of fungi as agents to fight pathogens within coffee
Rubiaceae plant
Photo Credit: 
João Medeiros Under Creative Commons License -

College Park, MD -- In her quest to eradicate a devastating coffee disease called “Coffee Rust” an issue that is plaguing Central American families who rely on coffee production to sustain their livelihood Priscila Chaverri, PhD and two Ohio State University colleagues have received a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to examine endophytic fungi as chemical producing agents to fight harmful pathogens within coffee plants. The team will also explore other more basic biological questions integrated in the genomes of these chemical-producing fungi.

At its core, this is a biological control test using one or several living organisms, in this case fungi, to control another. Traditionally, scientists have used one fungus to fight one pathogen whereas Chaverri’s research will use several species of fungi collected from wild Rubiaceae plants (coffee family) against coffee rust and other diseases to determine if they can work together in a synergistic capacity. The hope is to identify specific chemicals produced by the fungi that will be used to fight pathogens within the plant.

Chaverri aims to take her findings to the field and test the fungi from the Rubiaceae plants in coffee plantations in Costa Rica. In addition to diseases like coffee rust, there are a number of variables that have an impact on plant survival, namely insect pests and drought. Chaverri hopes to identify combinations of several fungi that will give coffee plants innate protection from a broad spectrum of harmful naturally occurring circumstances. A native Costa Rican with a particular passion for home-based extension work, Chaverri will utilize her research to teach folks involved in coffee co-ops how to find better bio-control agents that can be used to improve plant’s immune system and production.

“My colleagues at Ohio State and I are grateful to the National Science Foundation for the opportunity to work on and hopefully solve such a rampant problem that has a profound impact on the coffee industry in Central America,” said Chaverri. “Coffee co-ops sustain so many families and with this funding our work is uniquely poised to improve their livelihood and establish economic viability on a more long term basis. To date, coffee rust has claimed one billion in losses and 250,000 jobs in Central America. This is a problem that requires an immediate solution.”

The Costa Rican National Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Science and Technology recently recognized Chaverri’s commitment to scientific development in her home country through bestowment of a national award. This is the highest recognition in her field in Costa Rica, which requires nomination by two distinct colleagues and is awarded only once every two years. The Vice President of Costa Rica personally presented Chaverri with a plaque commemorating the occasion.

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