Faculty Spotlight: Trino and the Great Mexican Cassava Chase

In a brief trip to Mexico, Dr Jose “Trino” Ascencio-Ibanez, Assistant Professor in the Department of Molecular and Structural Biochemistry visited a number of research centers and universities, whilst also making significant headway on a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Between collaborative initiatives and scavenging the Mexican wild for cassava that make symptoms of cassava mosaic disease worse.


There will be some highly anticipated collaborations to come, but Trino and his collaborator from the Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute (MARI) in Tanzania, Dr. Joseph Ndunguru, are working hard in their research as they isolate and study specific genome sequences in cassava.


Their first stop was in the city of San Luis Potosí in central Mexico. The two collaborators visited the Instituto de Investigación de Zonas Desérticas (IIZD) where Trino met with faculty and collected samples from their robust herbarium. But there’s more. Trino was on a mission to collaborate, and spent his time in San Luis Potosí to visit a second research center, the Instituto de Investigación Científica y Technológica (IPICyT). This particular stop allowed Trino to fraternize, and forge amazing relationships with these two reserach centers, but what he’s doing with his project is equally so.




(Left: Dr. Ndunguru and Trino at IIZD Right: Dr. Ndunguru and Trino at IPICyT) 


“Our actual interest is to find relatives of cassava that do not contain the Sequences Enhancing Geminivirus Symptoms (SEGS),” Trino explained, detailing the project with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “SEGS are encoded in the domesticated Manihot esculenta (cassava) genome, which makes it very difficult to study. So we want to uncover Manihot plants that do not contain the SEGS so we can study them without the genomic interference.”


Trino collected a handful of crucial samples from IIZD, and managed several more at his second stop in Mexico: Guadalajara. Three more universities were visited, the first two providing incredible samples for Trino and Ndunguru. At Universidad de Guadalajara (U de G), and at Centro Universitario de Ciencias Biólogicas Y Agropecuarias (CUCBA), the herbarium was Trino’s playground, and even used one of their labs to purify the DNA of many of their collected samples from a massive hunt for the indigenous and elusive Manihot.


(Left: Dr. Ndunguru mid-hunt Right: Dr. Pablo Carrillo of U de G finds Manihot romboidea


“The trip was highly successful,” proclaimed Trino. “We collected a total of 25 independent Manihot species, two of them from fresh tissue and the others from herbarium specimens. We purified the DNA and most of the samples produced viable DNA for analysis. We are still running the experiments to verify if they contain the SEGS or not.”


And so the project continues into the now, but there were memories that Trino will hold onto forever. Trino brought back the bounties of two crystalline collaborations and over twenty-five species of Manihot, but he’s also brought back some incredible memories from these very special places in Mexico– occasions of adventure and happenstance, and don’t forget the food.


“We got to visit very cool places. The northern state of San Luis Potosi is very arid and Dr. Joseph Ndunguru was amazed of the number of cacti and plants adapted to dry areas,” Trino said. “We also were able to engage with local scientist and enjoy tasting ‘Raicilla’ a distilled beverage that is produced similar to Tequila but from a completely different species of agave.”


And in Guadalajara there was fun to be had, especially for the avid scientist. Trino is especially grateful to his researcher accomplice, “Pili,” and even expressed that there is an interest in pursuing research in Physalis with her at U de G.



(Left: Dr. Ndunguru, Pili, Trino Right: MARI, NCSU, U de G at herbarium) 


“Another particular highlight was that while I was looking at the herbarium specimens I found that several of them were collected by Dr. Carlos Luis Diaz Luna, a Biologist that was my Botany and Genetics teacher, and the reason why I pursued my interests in Genetic Engineering and Molecular Biology.”


Trino even managed to squeeze in a visit to his alma mater, Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara. All in all, it’s clear that this trip was refreshing, and we can clearly look forward to new collaborations with these Mexican universities.


“The trip was very exciting. I have been traveling to Africa (Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia) a lot in the past couple of years, helping people and learning a lot. But I haven’t had the chance to visit my country for work. This was so interesting and exciting, I generated contacts and collaborations that will endure and will allow me to share my expertise with my fellow Mexicans and at the same time enrich my research with their expertise and generosity.”


Katie Dungan

Intern, CALS International Programs

Communications Student, Appalachian State University