With coffee leaf rust threatening farmer output, Purdue University mycologist Catherine Aime is striving to protect this mainstay of daily life and the economies of regions around the world.
In June, Aime and colleagues issued a warning about a potential threat to the coffee industry. She is currently part of a team lead by the Synergistic Hawaii Agriculture Council that is investigating the fungus that causes the disease and developing measures to combat it with the help of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR).
Aime is leading a group of scientists that will sequence the coffee leaf rust genome in order to help breed resistant coffee cultivars or produce fungicides based on the disease’s genetic weaknesses.
“Coffee rust has already wreaked havoc on small-scale coffee growers in Central America and the Caribbean who rely on the crop for their livelihood,” she said. “Along with cocoa, it is one of the tropical cropping systems that is most prone to disturbances, such as those that are expected as a result of changing climates, with far-reaching socioeconomic consequences.”
The fungus Hemileia vastatrix causes coffee leaf rust, which affects the leaves of coffee trees, lowering yields and causing tree damage. Since 2011, it has caused billions of dollars in damage to farms in Central and South America. It was first identified in Hawaii in late 2020.
Aime, a professor in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, is the country’s sole academic mycologist who focuses on the fungi that cause rust infections. She is also a specialist on fungus in tropical ecosystems and a pioneer in the identification of fungi that cannot be cultured.