Parasitic plants in cereals such as maize, sorghum, highland rice and millet are increasing the pressure on food production in Africa. One of the main problems is Striga, a deceptively beautiful plant that takes all the water and nutrients it needs from its host. The parasitic plant mainly attacks cereals when the growing conditions are unfavorable, which is why particularly cereals in Africa are affected. The effects are disastrous as Striga can cause complete harvest failure.

Originally from Pakistan, Muhammad Jamil studied at Wageningen University the processes involved in the germination of Striga seeds and their initial ‘attachment’ to the host. Prior research had already shown that Striga seeds only germinate when specific plant hormones – called strigolactones – are present in the soil. Strigolactones are secreted into the soil from the roots of the host. This signals the Striga seeds that there is a host root nearby that can be infected, causing the seeds to germinate and the seedlings to attack the crop.

Jamil studied various approaches for reducing the damage caused by Striga, including the effect of substances that reduce the production of strigolactones, the genetic variation for the production of strigolactones, and the effect of fertilizers on strigolactone production. He studied the consequences on the germination of Striga seeds and the attachment of the seedlings to rice, sorghum and maize.

Plants produce strigolactones from carotene, the well-known coloring agent also present in carrots. Jamil treated rice with very low amounts of compounds that inhibit the production of carotene. By doing so he succeeded in reducing the strigolactone production of the plants. And the effect was considerable: The germination of Striga seeds was reduced by up to 75 percent.

The use of fertilizer also resulted in a substantial reduction in strigolactone production and, therefore, Striga infestation. In addition, Jamil’s research showed that the strigolactone production of different rice varieties varies tremendously. Some varieties have a low strigolactone production and are therefore less affected by parasitic plants.

All in all Jamil sees good opportunities for developing cheaper, effective technologies to reduce the effect of the Striga parasite. This would allow African farmers to produce more food and achieve a better income.