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Assistant professor combines passions for public service and research

BOONE—A stint in the Peace Corps combined with an interest in plant biology helped solidify the research interests of Dr. Matt Estep, an assistant professor in Appalachian State University’s Department of Biology.

View larger imageStriga, an invasive plant, is devastating crops in sub-Saharan Africa such as this field of maize. Appalachian State University Assistant Professor Matt Estep hopes to work with international researchers in Uganda to develop plants resistance to the weed. (Photo courtesy of Matt Estep)

Estep recently returned from a trip to Nairobi, Kenya, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to attend Agricultural Research Connections (ARC) workshops with other international scientists and researchers from sub-Saharan Africa to explore research partnerships that focus on increasing the sustainable productivity of smallholder farmers in Africa.

Estep’s current research focuses on an agricultural weed called striga, also known as witchweed. The plant is devastating to subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa who depend on crops to survive.

Striga is an indigenous root parasite that attaches to the roots of grasses – such as millet, maize and sorghum – and robs them of their nutrients. “You don’t even know it’s there until it blooms and has done most of its damage,” Estep said. “That’s why it’s called witchweed. You can look at the crops and see that they are hurting, but you can’t see why.”

Striga is a very genetically diverse organism and has the ability to adapt rapidly, Estep explained. “We can breed plants for resistance to striga, but within two or three years, striga adapts to those modifications.”

“Another issue with striga is that it has to be hand weeded from the fields three times during the growing season, and that’s generally left for the women to do,” Estep said.

Estep plans to partner with a conservation biologist and geneticist from Uganda on future research that might result in striga-resistant plants. Estep also hopes to establish a long-term collaboration with African researchers in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Although the plant is banned in the U.S., Estep has permits to study leaf tissues from plants grown in Africa. “We extract DNA from the leaf tissue, run it against a series of genetic markers, and build a genetic map that allows us to hone in on those genes responsible for its adaption to crops,” he said.

Estep said a current plant modification being tested is to “pyramid” several types of genetic resistances to the weed in test crops. “But no one knows which genes actually cause the resistance to Striga, so part of what we are doing is identifying what those genes are so that we can study them in more detail and understand how they are working,” he said.

After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Appalachian, Estep joined the Peace Corps and worked in the Philippines with local residents on coral reef conservation before earning a Ph.D. from the University of Georgia.

“I worked with fishermen who depended on fishing to survive. They didn’t care about preserving areas for future generations. I battled with that the whole time I was there,” Estep said. “One of the reasons I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in plant genetics and in particular maize genetics, was that if we can feed them, then we can begin to implement higher level conservation issues. You can’t preserve a coral reef if everyone is starving. But if they are well fed, you have a better chance.”

“Part of the reason I work in Africa is to assist people who need help,” he said. “In Africa, if farmers don’t produce a crop, they starve.”