Prof. Steven Runo will be awarded the Royal Society Africa Prize 2020

Prof. Steven Runo will be awarded the Royal Society Africa Prize 2020
Prof. Steven Runo will be awarded the Royal Society Africa Prize 2020

Prof. Steven Runo will be awarded the Royal Society Africa Prize 2020 for elucidating pathways for long distance RNA trafficking between parasitic plants and their hosts and identifying and developing transgenic protocol for characterizing and validating candidate host and parasite genes.

The awards

The Royal Society Africa Prize is to recognise research scientists based in Africa who are making an innovative contribution to the sciences. Winners will receive a grant of £15,000 to support their research. The medal is of bronze, awarded annually and is accompanied by a gift of £2,000. The prize was previously the Royal Society Pfizer Award which was last awarded in 2016.

Prof. Steven Runo

Steven Runo is a Kenyan researcher who is a Professor at Kenyatta University. Runo has extensively studied the pathogens of African cereal crops, including Striga.

Runo was born in Kenya. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at Kenyatta University. Runo moved to the United States for his doctoral research, where he joined the University of California, Davis and worked alongside Neelima Sinha. It was here where he started working on long-distance RNA trafficking, focussing initially on communication between Cuscuta and tomatoes.

Prof. Steven Runo
From left to right: Josiah Mutuku (BecA-ILRI Hub), Olu Shorinola (JIC), Steven Runo (Kenyatta University), Beccy Corkill (JIC) and Sam Mugford (JIC) at the BecA-ILRI Hub greenhouses (photo: JIC/ Matt Heaton.
Photo Credit: Africa Biosciences

In 2008 Runo returned to Africa, where he was made Professor at Kenyatta University. He has been appointed a Visiting Scientist at the University of Sheffield and University of Virginia. Runo investigates the pathogens which threaten African agriculture. Amongst these, he has studied witchweed (or Striga), a parasitic plant that attacks cultivated cereals. Runo refers to Striga as the “cereal killer”.

Whilst Striga-resistant cereal crops can be grown, they typically mutate into versions that are not tolerant to attack. It is estimated that crops lost to Striga cost up to $200 million a year, and each plant can produce up to 500,000 seeds. The seeds are transported by wind and water and can rapidly germinate. Runo has proposed several control strategies; including identifying ways to avoid germination, exploiting host-based resistance and diminishing the Striga seed bank. Amongst these, germination can be avoided through the use of chemical biology; making use of small molecules to bind to the strigolactone receptor. He has also studied how molecular genetics can be used to identify the specific genes that can make crops resistant. To achieve these aims, Runo has investigated the trafficking of RNA molecules between parasitic plants.