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CSIRO enlisted to avert global wheat supply crisis

CSIRO is investigating ways of controlling a devastating new wheat disease strain which could lead to a global wheat production and food supply crisis.

Cornell University in the United States, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Global Development Program, has subcontracted CSIRO to undertake the research as part of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project to tackle Ug99 a strain of the fungus, wheat stem rust.

World leaders in rust research Dr Evans Lagudah and Dr Michael Ayliffe from CSIRO Plant Industry in Canberra will undertake the CSIRO component of this research in Australia.

"Ug99 first occurred in Uganda in 1999, it's now in Iran and closing in on Asia," says Dr Lagudah.

"Most crops in Asia's major wheat growing areas are vulnerable to Ug99, so if it gets to these areas food shortages and famine could result. Ug99 could also pose a bio-security threat to Australia.

"Wheat varieties worldwide, including those in Australia, rely on only a few rust-resistance genes to protect them from different strains of rust, but most of these resistance genes provide little protection against Ug99 and derived strains."

Through the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) The University of Sydney's Plant Breeding Institute and the International Centre for Wheat and Maize Improvement (CIMMYT), have coordinated the evaluation of Australian wheat varieties and breeding material against Ug99 in Kenya, to identify resistant and vulnerable varieties.

"The challenge is to now identify and deploy more multiple resistance gene combinations that protect wheat against Ug99 or find other ways to protect wheat from this fungus," Dr Lagudah says.

Dr Lagudah's research will focus on rust resistance genes that are effective against Ug99, previously sourced from ancestral wheat species, to identify DNA markers for these genes. DNA markers help wheat breeders incorporate desirable genes into new varieties quickly.

Dr Ayliffe will expand his research into why rice is immune to rust, to determine what protects it against rust and if this mechanism can be transferred to wheat to protect it against Ug99.

"Participating in a co-ordinated international consortium is the best way to find solutions to this potential global threat," Dr Ayliffe says.


Contact: Sophie Clayton
CSIRO Australia

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