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​2020 William Boright Hewitt and Maybelle Ellen Ball Hewitt Award

​This award recognizes a scientist within seven years of the PhD who has made an outstanding, innovative contribution directed towards the control of plant disease.

Alejandro Ortega-Beltran
International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Nigeria

Alejandro Ortega-Beltran, a native of Mexico, graduated as biotechnology engineer from Instituto Tecnológico de Sonora (México) in 2006. Throughout high school and his undergraduate years, he worked weekends and school breaks as a field and laboratory technician of the Maize Breeding Program of Mexico's Forestry, Agriculture and Livestock Research Institute (INIFAP), at the Norman E. Borlaug Experimental Center (CENEB) in Obregón, Sonora. He contributed to the development of maize hybrids with increased oil and protein content for use in hot and difficult farming field conditions. At CENEB, Ortega-Beltran was exposed to diverse maize and wheat research programs and began to learn the art of nurturing international collaborations. CENEB hosts a research station, The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), which allowed Ortega-Beltran to interact with accomplished scientists from across the world. He frequently interacted with commercial farmers and understood how to conduct research to address farmers' needs.

Ortega-Beltran completed a PhD in plant pathology at the University of Arizona in December 2012, under Peter Cotty's supervision. His studies shed light on biology and ecology of aflatoxin-producing fungi, allowed identification of resistance to aflatoxin contamination among Mexico's native maize landraces, and provided a basis for using the U.S.-registered biopesticide Aspergillus flavus AF36 in Mexico. His skills led to cost-effective, streamlined laboratory procedures, which later contributed to work in California and Africa. Five publications emanated from his doctorate, with more underway. Ortega-Beltran discovered a joy for teaching as a graduate teaching assistant in Arizona. After graduating, he taught at Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Obregón. He continues to use his exceptional communication skills to train students, colleagues, and agricultural partners across the globe.

Ortega-Beltran then became a postdoctoral researcher in 2013 at the University of California–Davis, Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center for two years under Themis Michailides' supervision. At that time, the biopesticide AF36 was registered for use in pistachio but not in other tree crops. AF36's efficacy in almond and fig was demonstrated but commercial use was precluded without data examining effects of product use on pollinator honeybees. Ortega-Beltran's research demonstrated that biocontrol application poses no threat to honeybees. Those results were fundamental to register AF36 for use in almond and fig. Aflatoxin biocontrol products are already widely used in California, but no multi-strain products are registered there. Another important contribution of Ortega-Beltran was the detection of several atoxigenic genotypes adapted to almond, fig, and pistachio. He selected strains with potential to constitute multi-strain products specific for tree crops. That research paved the way for development of multi-strain products with increased, longer-term efficacy for aflatoxin mitigation in tree crops. He produced five publications from his postdoctoral training, with more underway, and while doing so improved aflatoxin-research protocols at the Michailides lab. In a highly competitive event, Ortega-Beltran won first prize for Best Poster of the 2015 UC Davis Postdoctoral Research Symposium.

In January 2016, Ortega-Beltran joined the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria where he works in close collaboration with Ranajit Bandyopadhyay. Right after joining IITA, Ortega-Beltran drafted a highly quoted state-of-the-art review on aflatoxin mitigation strategies across Africa, summarizing past activities of the Aflasafe program. He rapidly energized IITA's on-going biocontrol projects and made significant contributions towards scaling-up and expanding biocontrol in Africa. With immense enthusiasm, he sampled crops across Mali, Sudan, and Ethiopia to develop new products; screened tens of thousands of Aspergillus isolates; co-guided the start-up of biocontrol manufacturing facilities in Kenya and Senegal; developed an innovative process to produce large amounts of dry spores that increased efficiency and versatility of biocontrol manufacturing; planned and/or executed projects—often under difficult circumstances—in Sudan, South Sudan, Mali, Niger, and Ethiopia; wrote proposals with partners in Nigeria, Cameroon, Rwanda, and Uganda; and met with Ministers of Agriculture in Ethiopia and Togo to advocate the need for national aflatoxin management strategies. He coordinates Aflasafe's main laboratory and advises Aflasafe laboratories in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia. He also advises Pakistan's aflatoxin management program. He is equally comfortable interacting with farmers, regulators, donors, high-level politicians, and colleagues. At IITA he has produced 16 research articles and six book chapters.

One of Ortega-Beltran's most important contributions is leading the preparation of extensive dossiers for registration of biocontrol products in Senegal, The Gambia, Burkina Faso, and Ghana. He also contributed to dossiers for registering products in Zambia, Tanzania, Malawi, and Mozambique. He is IITA's go-to person for registration of aflatoxin biocontrol products. Ortega-Beltran plays important roles in Aflasafe's technology transfer and commercialization by reviewing manufacturing and commercialization strategies of investors, co-designing laboratory and manufacturing facilities and ensuring their correct construction and operation. Registration and commercialization allow tens of thousands of smallholder farmers in several African countries to use biocontrol to realize health and economic benefits.

Ortega-Beltran coordinates significant extension activities with large numbers of farmers in West Africa. For example, in Nigeria he ensures farmers and extension agents receive appropriate training in aflatoxin management. He has developed manuals and adapted laboratory-based protocols for field-based analyses that allow farmers and farmer-based organizations to understand treated crops are safe to consume and of sufficient quality to reach premium markets.

Ortega-Beltran has been a member of APS since 2007 and has attended many annual meetings. He has chaired the Mycotoxicology Committee (2016-2017). He is an Editorial Board member of Crop Protection.

Ortega-Beltran's broad interest and passion for plant pathology has led to development of a versatile, multidisciplinary research portfolio aided by strong collaborative linkages with scientists in Africa; United States; and Europe that, apart from biocontrol, addresses diseases of several crops. His work with breeders on breeding maize for resistance to aflatoxin and foliar diseases, identifying superior cowpea, African yam bean, and banana germplasm resistant to foliar diseases, and sequencing the genomes of causal agents of soybean red leaf blotch will significantly contribute to smallholder farmers in years to come.

Ortega-Beltran's many outstanding contributions to aflatoxin biocontrol of tree nuts, maize, and groundnut in North America and Africa demonstrate the extraordinary capabilities of a young professional and an exceptional leader.

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