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Gates Foundation’s next Grand Challenge: Vaccinating Plants

Diseased corn

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has done a lot to boost the science and delivery of vaccines for human health and to assist in the fight against disease.

Now, the Seattle philanthropy would like to start vaccinating crop plants to help poor farmers.

Rwandan farmer Odette Mukanyiko

“Not many people realize it but plants have fairly sophisticated immune systems,” said Chris Wilson, director of global health discovery at the Gates Foundation.

Finding new methods to immunize crops against disease and pests, Wilson said, could significantly improve yields for subsistence and smallholder farmers in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. Such an approach could also greatly reduce the need for pesticides, he added, and likely provide greater barrier to bugs developing resistance.

Chris Wilson

“This couldn’t really be the same thing as the vaccines we use on ourselves or for animals, but it would be functionally equivalent,” Wilson said. “This will require some novel thinking.”

Looking for more wacky ideas

The Gates Foundation is now accepting proposals from scientists, entrepreneurs and inventors aimed at improving health, reducing poverty and generally making the world a better place. The $100-million-endowed project, which awards $100,000 grants for first-time innovators, is called Grand Challenges Explorations program.

It may be worth noting that there have been several such programs, or variations on the overall program, known as Grand Challenges at the Gates Foundation.

The initial one was launched in 2003, by Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and was focused just on health, and is known as Grand Challenges in Global Health. Here’s an article I wrote at the time, for the Seattle PI.

The challenge evolves

The initial idea of Grand Challenges was to stimulate the scientific community to invest more time and energy in solving neglected problems in global health. It worked, I would say, but the program tended to fund big and mainstream research organizations (i.e., the establishment) rather than the kinds of folks who tend to buck the system and come up with new ideas.

The original Grand Challenges grants also largely went to American and European scientists, seldom to developing world researchers.

To address these criticisms, the Gates Foundation downsized the grants and also launched Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE). The idea was to give more support to smaller labs and scientists working in developing countries. About one out of ten GCE grants now go to poor country innovators.

But the program has also been expanding its scope to include projects that are not focused primarily on health, Wilson noted. A previous round of grants asked for innovative ideas on water and sanitation, he noted, which brought in so many novel ideas it spawned an entirely new initiative for the Gates Foundation — to re-invent the toilet. Here’s a great video call to action:

The idea of re-inventing, or improving, the toilet to make it water-less, energy efficient and sustainable in poor communities is not really that new, Wilson said.

“But I think it’s fair to say that the responses we got from that initial Grand Challenges request showed there was a much broader diversity of ideas and novel approaches out there,” Wilson said. “This brought in a lot of new concepts and moved the whole idea higher up the visibility ladder.”

The latest twist: Boosting plants, reducing crop loss

This round (number eight) of Grand Challenges Explorations still tends to emphasize solving specific health problems such as malnutrition in children and supporting slightly “wacky” technical innovations such as the application of “synthetic biology” to fight malaria or HIV.

Diseased corn

The expansion into non-health arenas continues with this request-for-proposals aimed at protecting crops from pests and disease.

“The overall goal is to help farmers get more out of their agricultural efforts,” Wilson said. “In poor communities, many crops are wasted due to pests and disease, or problems with storage, reducing the family’s income and livelihood.”

The Gates Foundation has set out a general set of principles for this agricultural challenge, which asks for any number of “transformative solutions” to fighting pests and disease that improve yields, reduce the need for traditional pesticides and focus on staple foods in the developing world.

The sky’s the limit, says Wilson. They like even crazy-sounding ideas, he said, so long as high-risk proposals also come with a potential for high pay-off if they actually work.

But one of the ideas he really hopes to see spark a lot of creative thinking is the idea of immunizing plants.

“If we could come up with something to invoke the plant’s native immune system to fight off these problems, it would be pretty powerful,” Wilson said. He quickly adds that the idea of plant vaccination is not necessarily the best or most favored idea in this round.

“But I can’t help get excited about it,” he said. “I’m an immunologist, after all.”



About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.