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New Hope in the Fight to Protect Global Wheat Supply from Ug99 Stem Rust

Our Scientists Discover Trio of Genes that Resist Devastating Disease

It's estimated that 90% of global wheat varieties are at risk of contracting a devastating stem rust disease, Ug99. Discovered in Uganda in 1999, it has affected crops from Africa to Western Asia – and it's spreading.

Tom Fetch examines wheat plants
Scientist Dr. Tom Fetch examines wheat for signs of stem rust.

The disease is characterized by the presence of brick-red, elongated, blister-like pustules, often leading to the death of the plant. Towards the end of the growing season black spores are produced which are released by wind or water to infect more plants.

While the disease hasn't reached North America yet, a team of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) scientists have made a breakthrough discovery in the international effort to control the disease by identifying and isolating three new genes with high levels of resistance not previously used in wheat breeding.

Dr. Tom Fetch, who leads the AAFC team, explained that many wheat varieties across the globe became susceptible because they only contained one gene with resistance that was overcome by Ug99. "The goal is to use genes in combination to create a multi-gene stack of resistance," he said.

AAFC has sent seed of the resistant Canadian varieties to wheat breeders in the United States and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) to develop improved local varieties in affected areas and in developing countries that are most at risk.

This research goes beyond enhancing the security and protection of Canada's food supply; international collaborations like this help to address the global challenge of doubling food production over the next 40 years to meet the demands of a growing population.

The discovery of the genes marks a huge step in controlling Ug99 and is a significant return on investment. The Government of Canada committed $13 million in 2009 to reduce the vulnerability of Canadian farmers to stem rust diseases of wheat. Since then, AAFC scientists have identified resistance in Canadian wheat lines, but also ensured new varieties have at least two effective resistance genes, and collaborated with an international effort on all aspects of wheat rust research – from pathology to variety development and distribution.

AAFC is one of 23 prominent research organizations around the world participating in the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project.

In March 2013, Dr. Fetch returned from a trip to Brazil where he took up that country's request to try and detect the potential migration of Ug99 there. Funding was provided to Dr. Fetch as a special visiting scientist in the "Doctors without Borders" program. While there, he presented a seminar to his science counterparts, met the head of Brazilian research and development to discuss the proposed work, toured farm fields, and talked with wheat farmers. He returned to Brazil in October of 2013 for a workshop he helped organize that brought together pathologists from Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and other countries to expand Ug99 monitoring.

For more information:

Media Relations
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
Ottawa, ON

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