LA Times reports about a 'time bomb' for world wheat crop.
(emphasis mine) [my comment]
A 'time bomb' for world wheat crop
The Ug99 fungus, called stem rust, could wipe out more than 80% of the world's wheat crops as it spreads from Africa, scientists fear. The race is on to breed resistant plants before it reaches the U.S.
By Karen Kaplan
June 14, 2009
The spores arrived from Kenya on dried, infected leaves ensconced in multiple layers of envelopes.
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 and sprayed them onto thousands of healthy 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.
Crop scientists fear the Ug99 fungus could wipe out more than 80% of worldwide wheat crops as it spreads from eastern Africa. It has already jumped the Red Sea and traveled as far as Iran. Experts say it is poised to enter the breadbasket of northern India and Pakistan, and the wind will inevitably carry it to Russia, China and even North America -- if it doesn't hitch a ride with people first.
"It's a time bomb," said Jim Peterson, a professor of wheat breeding and genetics at Oregon State University in Corvallis. "It moves in the air, it can move in clothing on an airplane. We know it's going to be here. It's a matter of how long it's going to take."
Though most Americans have never heard of it, Ug99 -- a type of fungus called stem rust because it produces reddish-brown flakes on plant stalks -- is the No. 1 threat to the world's most widely grown crop.
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico estimates that 19% of the world's wheat -- which provides food for 1 billion people in Asia and Africa -- is in imminent danger. American plant breeders say $10 billion worth of wheat would be destroyed if the fungus suddenly made its way to U.S. fields.
Fear that the fungus will cause widespread damage has caused short-term price spikes on world wheat markets. Famine has been averted thus far, but experts say it's only a matter of time.
"A significant humanitarian crisis is inevitable," said Rick Ward, the coordinator of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
The solution is to develop new wheat varieties that are immune to Ug99. That's much easier said than done.
After several years of feverish work, scientists have identified a mere half-dozen genes that are immediately useful for protecting wheat from Ug99. Incorporating them into crops using conventional breeding techniques is a nine- to 12-year process that has only just begun. And that process will have to be repeated for each of the thousands of wheat varieties that is specially adapted to a particular region and climate.
"All the seed needs to change in the next few years," said Ronnie Coffman, a plant breeder who heads the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project. "It's really an enormous undertaking."
Farmers have been battling stem rust for as long as they have grown wheat. The fungus' ancestors infected wild grasses for millions of years before people began cultivating them for food, said Jorge Dubcovsky, professor of genetics and plant breeding at UC Davis.
"The pathogen keeps mutating and evolving," he said. "It's one of our biblical pests. This is not a small enemy."
When a spore lands on a green wheat plant, it forms a pustule that invades the outer layers of the stalk. The pustule hijacks the plant's water and nutrients and diverts them to produce new rust spores instead of grain. Within two weeks of an initial attack, there can be millions of pustules in a 2.5-acre patch of land.
Wheat plants that can recognize a specific chemical produced by stem rust can mount a defense against the fungus. But the rust is able to mutate, evade the plant's immune system and resume its spread.
Stem rust destroyed more than 20% of U.S. wheat crops several times between 1917 and 1935, and losses reach ed nearly 9% twice in the 1950s. The last major outbreak, in 1962, destroyed 5.2% of the U.S. crop, according to Peterson, who chairs the National Wheat Improvement Committee.
The fungus was kept 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 stem rust had been defeated for good. Scientists switched to other topics, and the hunt for new resistance genes practically slowed to a crawl.
A new strain, of stem rust was identified on a wheat farm in Uganda in 1999. [hence the name Ug99]
"It didn't draw a lot of attention, frankly," said Marty Carson, research leader at the Cereal Disease Laboratory, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "There's very little wheat grown in Uganda."
East Africa is a natural hot spot for stem rust. Weather conditions allow farmers to grow wheat year-round, so rust spores can always find a susceptible host. Some of the wheat is grown as high as 7,000 feet above sea level, where intense solar radiation helps the fungus mutate.
The highlands are also home to barberry bushes, the only plant on which stem rust is known to reproduce through sexual recombination. That genetic shuffling provides a golden opportunity for the fungus to evolve into a deadly strain.
Within a few years, Ug99 -- named for the country and year it was identified -- had devastated farms in neighboring Kenya, where much of the wheat is grown on large-scale farms that have so far been able to absorb the blow. Then it moved north to Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen, putting more small farmers at risk. Those that can afford it are trying to make do with fungicides, but that's too cumbersome and expensive to be a long-term solution, Ward said.
To make matters worse, the fungus is becoming more virulent as it spreads. Scientists discovered a Ug99 variant in 2006 that can defeat Sr24, a resistance gene that protects Great Plains wheat.
Last year, another variant was found with immunity to Sr36, a gene that safeguards Eastern wheat.
Should those variants make their way to U.S. fields any time soon, scientists would be hard-pressed to protect American wheat crops.
Now the pressure is on to develop new wheat varieties that are impervious to Ug99. Hundreds of varieties will need to be upgraded in the U.S. alone.
KARE reports that after a 50 year reprieve, cereal rust may return.
After a 50 year reprieve, cereal rust may return
By Jeffrey DeMars
It's been a part of research for more than 100 years.
It affects food production across the world.
Yet it's likely you've never heard of Cereal Rust Research and Prevention.
"The rust is sapping that moisture," said Professor Emeritus Alan Roelfs while pointing to a weakened wheat plant.
The University of Minnesota is a leader in the study and the talk Thursday is about a new version of UG-99. It's a rust disease, capable of destroying much of the world's wheat and barley.
"The fungus is removing nutrient from the plant," said Roelfs. "The fungus makes about 5000 spores a day per cluster and it continues that for several weeks so all those nutrients that are blowing away in rust spores are not moving to the grain, it causes the grain to be smaller and often very shriveled."
The fungus lives off the nutrients it takes away from the plant.
The grain eventually loses its nutritional value, making fields of grain essentially worthless, affecting food supplies like bread and cereals.
For now UG-99 has been limited to farms in Africa, but experts say it has spread to the Middle East.
Preparations are underway for a potential spread to southern Asia and possibly here, if it makes it that far.
Experts at the University are working on breeding new varieties of wheat that can withstand this latest strain of UG-99.
Creating a new plant and planting a variety of wheat are considered the most effective ways to battle cereal rust.
Canwest News Service reports that Canada is in battle against deadly wheat fungus.
Canada in battle against deadly wheat fungus
By David Akin, Canwest News Service
The federal government said Thursday it will spend $13 million to support a worldwide scientific effort to stop a destructive fungus that threatens to wipe out 80% of the world's wheat crop.
The announcement came on the same day that Prime Minister Stephen Harper, at the G8 Summit in Italy, said his government would direct $600 million of previously budgeted foreign aid money for use specifically on food security issues.
Canadian and international officials say the airborne fungus, known as Ug99, causes a wheat stem rust that kills the plant. It has so far proved unstoppable, and should it reach the world's breadbaskets in North America, Asia and Central Europe, it would cause widespread famine and push the cost of such staples as bread and pasta through the roof.
So far, no incidences of Ug99 have been found in Canada.
But scientists at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada are busy trying to develop a new strain of wheat that can naturally resist the Ug99 spores.
Rust is a problem wheat growers have been dealing with since biblical times. Whenever a new rust-causing fungus is discovered, scientists develop a new strain of wheat.
It can often take as many as 12 years to produce new pest-resistant wheat variants. Scientists working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture have already tested 16,000 wheat varieties, trying to find the genetic combination that will beat back Ug99.
My reaction: I have been meaning to write about the threat of Ug99 for a while now.
1) Ug99 fungus could wipe out more than 80% of worldwide wheat crops as it spreads from eastern Africa.
2) 19% of the world's wheat -- which provides food for 1 billion people in Asia and Africa -- is in imminent danger.
3) The Ug99 fungus has so far proved unstoppable, and should it reach the world's breadbaskets in North America, Asia and Central Europe, it would push the cost of such staples as bread and pasta through the roof.
4) While famine has been averted thus far, a significant humanitarian crisis is inevitable.
What is Ug-99
1) Ug99 is a new strain of stem rust was identified on a wheat farm in Uganda in 1999 (Ug
anda + 1999 = Ug99).
2) the Ug99 fungus is called stem rust because it produces reddish-brown flakes on plant stalks, and it is the No. 1 threat to the world's wheat crop.
3) The Ug-99 fungus removes nutrient from the plant. It makes about 5000 spores a day per cluster and it continues that for several weeks so all the wheat's nutrients are blown away in rust spores instead of moving to the grain.
4) The grain eventually loses its nutritional value, making fields of grain essentially worthless, affecting food supplies like bread and cereals.
Ug-99 is spreading and becoming deadlier
1) Within a few years of its discovery in Uganda, Ug99 had devastated farms in neighboring Kenya, where much of the wheat is grown on large-scale farms that have so far been able to absorb the blow.
2) It then jumped the Red Sea and traveled as far as Iran.
3) Ug99 is now poised to enter the breadbasket of northern India and Pakistan, and the wind will inevitably carry it to Russia, China and even North America (if it doesn't hitch a ride with people first).
4) To make matters worse, the fungus is becoming more virulent as it spreads.
A) In 2006, Scientists discovered a Ug99 variant that can defeat Sr24, a resistance gene that protects Great Plains wheat.
B) In 2008, another variant was found with immunity to Sr36, a gene that safeguards Eastern wheat.
Solution to Ug99 is years away
1) The solution to the Ug99 threat is to produce new pest-resistant wheat variants.
1) After several years of feverish work, scientists have identified a mere half-dozen genes that are immediately useful for protecting wheat from Ug99.
1) Unfortunately, incorporating these genes into crops using conventional breeding techniques is a nine- to 12-year process that has only just begun.
1) Should Ug99 make their way to US fields any time soon, scientists would be hard-pressed to protect American wheat crops.
Conclusion: While it will probably take a couple more years for Ug99 to spread around the world, it is already a danger to 19% of global wheat production and is definitely a threat worth watching.