Ug99 Spreads - Scientists Scurry to find stronger, healthier strains of wheat

Fungus Ug99 has the potential to distort our future food prices and even lead to the rationing of many types of grains…. It sounds as if wheat has caught the flu! A worst case scenario has it that 80% of the world’s wheat crops could be wiped out as this ‘stem rust’ fungus spreads beyond Eastern Africa (Uganda and Kenya is where it started). Experts say it is now poised to spread past Iran and to enter the breadbasket of northern India and Pakistan, and the wind will inevitably carry it to all areas of the Northern Hemisphere.

Katharine Kimball reports for The Times Oregon State that “Working inside a bio-secure greenhouse outfitted with motion detectors and surveillance cameras, government scientists at the Cereal Disease Laboratory in St. Paul, Minn., suspended the fungal spores in a light mineral oil and sprayed them onto thousands of healthy wheat plants. After two weeks, the stalks were covered with deadly reddish blisters characteristic of the scourge known as Ug99. Nearly all the plants were goners.
Scientists have a laborious task ahead as the conventional breeding techniques to find a resistant strain will take nine to 12 years to introduce. Then thousands of varieties, that all are deemed to need to change in order to survive this stem rust must be altered - a battle that has been on-going as for as long as humans have eaten wheat.
According to Jorge Dubcovsky, professor of genetics and plant breeding at UC Davis, "The pathogen keeps mutating and evolving. It's one of our biblical pests. This is not a small enemy."
Scientists have kept the fungus at bay for years by breeders who slowly and methodically incorporated different combinations of six major stem rust resistance genes into various varieties of wheat. The breeders thought it unlikely that the rust could overcome clusters of those genes at the same time. After several outbreak-free decades, it seemed that the scientists had won out and the hunt for new resistance genes practically slowed to a crawl.
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico guestimates that 20% of the world's wheat, providing food for 1 billion people in Asia and Africa, is next in line for the travelling pest. American plant breeders assume $10 billion worth of wheat would be destroyed if the fungus made it to US fields.
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