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Genome sequence could reveal 'Achilles' heels' of important wheat disease

Research published in PLoS Genetics today (9 June) provides insights into how an important fungal disease is able to evade wheat's defences. The researchers hope that the study, which reveals the fungus' complete genome sequence, will enable them to breed resistant crop plants or improve the use of pesticides.

The genome sequence was produced by an international consortium of researchers including scientists at Rothamsted Research in the UK. The scientists, who were funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and others, are already using the fungus' genome sequence to find ways to control the disease in order to help meet the challenges of ensuring global food security.

The consortium has sequenced the genome of a fungus called Mycosphaerella graminicola which causes leaf blotch disease in wheat. The disease kills cells in the plants leaves leaving large dead blotches which are unable to absorb energy from the sun. This significantly reduces yields and takes a serious toll on wheat crops globally and in the UK; annually a 5-15% reduction in grain yield is incurred in each wheat field solely as a result these infections.

Professor Kim Hammond-Kosack of Rothamsted Research who led the study in the UK said "M. graminicola attacks wheat plants by stealth. There is normally a period of about a week between when a plant first becomes infected and when the characteristic blotches of the disease appear on its leaves. During this time it appears that the plant fails to recognise it has become infected and so is unable to activate its defences to fight back. Studying the fungus' genome will help us to understand how the pathogen is able to go undetected and maybe reveal a chink in its armour that we can exploit."

The genome sequence reveals that M. graminicola has very few genes which produce enzymes able to break-down plant cell walls compared with other fungi which specialise in infecting plan

Contact: Mike Davies
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

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