Monday, 3 December 2007

Highlight: the Global Rust Initiative

The Global Rust Initiative (GRI) is a measured yet aggressive response to the emergence and spread of stem rust race Ug99 in East Africa. First formally noted in 1999, this race appeared to be a significant threat to global wheat production. Recurring epidemics in Kenya and then Ethiopia brought forth strong advocacy for world action from Nobel Laureate NE Borlaug.

CIMMYT heeded this call and together with Dr. Borlaug, declared in January of 2005 its intent to form a Global Rust Initiative to prevent a pandemic.With resources and advice from Dr. NE Borlaug and the Rockefeller Foundation, CIMMYT commissioned a blue ribbon panel of world experts to assess the nature of the threat and if warranted, prescribe remedies. It should be noted that the panel included scientists from both CIMMYT and ICARDA- not simply for institutional reasons, but because they are in the top tier of international rust scientists.

The wheat stem rust (Puccinia graminis), also known as wheat black rust, is capable of causing severe losses and can destroy entire wheat fields. It is estimated that as much as 80 percent of all wheat varieties planted in Asia and Africa are susceptible to this new strain. The spores of wheat rust are mostly carried by wind over long distances and across continents.
Old canvas sheets, twine and branches
–makeshift shade for delicate seedlings at Njoro
The Njoro station is in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya, not far from the city of Nakuru and very close to the Equator. The new stem rust spores have been present in the air at the station for at least three years, making it the perfect location for testing wheat to see if it can resist the fungus. “We improvise a lot here,” says Miriam Kinyua, the Director of the station and overall coordinator of Kenya wheat research, including GRI activities. “The world needs this work to be done.” She also expresses gratitude to the Canadian International Development Agency for providing funding that let the station put in a good irrigation system. “We can now grow wheat in the off season and ensure that if the rains fail, our testing won’t,” she says. She is also pleased that the research station is now connected to the rest of the world via a satellite dish and the internet, another result of the CIDA contribution. New contributions from USAID are adding to the support for GRI work in both Kenya and Ethiopia.

Called Ug99, the new stem rust is such a large threat to wheat around the world that scientists dare not transport the spores themselves to other test locations. Instead as part of the CIMMYT-ICARDA Global Rust Initiative, which also includes national partners like KARI and the Ethiopian Institute of Agriculture Research (EIAR), the world’s wheat comes to East Africa. Similar work is being conducted at several sites in Ethiopia by EIAR. “We are committed to work with international partners to fight the looming threat of stem rust,” says Dr. Bedada Girma, leader of EIAR's Stem Rust Task Force.

The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has worked with the National Wheat and Barley Improvement Committees to collect and send U.S. wheat and barley breeding lines to east Africa for screening against Ug99 in collaboration with CIMMYT and the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI). Data from the Kenyan field-screening nursery will give U.S. wheat and barley breeders a headstart on developing new varieties with resistance to Ug99.

ARS plant pathologist Yue Jin evaluates wheat seedlings infected with stem rust.
Interest in the effort is growing, helped in part by the results to date shown by Yue Jin and colleagues at ARS, CIMMYT, ICARDA, KARI, the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research, the University of Minnesota, and many other institutions.

See also
Read more about this research in the November/December 2007 issue of the Agricultural Research magazine.

Chinese scientists responsible for developing innovative wheat varieties were recognized on 03/12/2007 with the International Award for "Outstanding Agricultural Technology". One of the varieties, known as Jimai 20, is the only Chinese wheat cultivar—and one of the few in the world—to show high resistance to a new and virulent strain of destructive wheat stem rust that originated in East Africa and has now spread to the Arabian peninsula. International wheat experts have been alarmed that most of the world’s wheat varieties appear susceptible to the disease, which can reduce harvests by as much 70 percent. See: China's new high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat boosting as world prices soar.

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