Rust threatens world's wheat crops

June 1, 2010

A Murdoch University researcher is battling a deadly wheat fungus that is threatening the world's wheat crops.

Four new mutations of the devastating wheat fungus known as 'stem rust' have overcome existing sources of genetic resistance developed to safeguard wheat crops.

Associate Professor Mehmet Cakir, head of the WA State Agricultural Biotechnology Centre based study, has been working to develop resistant wheat genes to strains of stem rust, or Ug99, and the Russian wheat aphid to safeguard Australian wheat production from these biosecurity threats.

Funded by the Grains Research Development Centre (GRDC) and Murdoch University Associate Professor Cakir has spent a great deal of time working in Kenya, where up to 80 per cent of Kenyan farmers' wheat has been decimated by the reddish-brown, wind-borne fungus and the aphid.

"We want to make sure that Australian farmers are safeguarded against these biosecurity threats, to ensure a profitable and sustainable grains industry in Australia," Associate Professor Cakir said.

His work has already identified resistant wheat lines in Kenya and now aims to develop resistant varieties to both Ug99 and Russian wheat aphid for the Australian farmers, as the current varieties are susceptible to these pests.

According to the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) gathering of leading wheat experts from Australia, Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, the evolving pathogen may pose an even greater threat to global wheat production than the original Ug99.

The new 'races' of Ug99 have acquired the ability to defeat two of the most important stem rust-resistant genes, which are widely used in most of the world's wheat breeding programs.

The new variation of Ug99 identified in Kenya went from first detection in trace amounts in one year to epidemic proportions the next year.

First discovered in Uganda in 1999, the original Ug99 has also been found in Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen and Iran; a Global Cereal Rust Monitoring System, housed at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), suggests it is on the march toward South Asia and beyond.

Its trajectory and evolution are of particular concern to the major wheat-growing areas of Southern and Eastern Africa, the Central Asian Republics, the Caucasus, the Indian subcontinent, South America, North America and Australia.

The State Government has announced it will invest $30 million over three years towards the creation of a state of the art grain innovation centre at Murdoch University.

The Australian Export Grain Innovation Centre (AEGIC) will be a vibrant hub of science, technology and innovation focussed on increasing the competitiveness of the $4.5 billion Western Australian grains industry. It will be part of the $186 million program to relocate the� Department of Agriculture and Food to the Murdoch University campus.

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