Stem rust, a fungus disease affecting cereal crops such as wheat, is raising concern among pathologists. An issue that plant scientists thought was resolved has resurfaced, and they are currently working to develop different types of resistance to this disease.
Tom Fetch, a Canadian Agriculture research scientist, specializes in stem rust in cereal crops; however, his job had not received much attention until now. Canada, luckily, has not faced a stem rust infection for approximately 30 years, thanks to North American scientists who had found a way to prevent these outbreaks in the western hemisphere. This fungus did not fully die out because a new stem rust, Ug99, manifested in Uganda in 1998 and expanded across the desert plains of East Africa. Since then, researchers have made it their top priority to limit the spread of Ug99. In 2014, over 15 plant pathologists of the Agriculture Canada Research Centre in Morden were studying diseases in crops such as cereal, pulse, and oilseed, trying to find effective ways to reduce the amount of fungus that is killing off the crops.
The stem rust Ug99 outbreak is considered a threat, as it destroys yields in infected fields and can possibly transport fungal spores across countries or oceans. Fetch and his colleagues dug deeper into the Ug99 situation, by analyzing samples of the spores under highly controlled conditions. These conditions in the laboratory were so dangerous that the scientists had to leave their clothing inside the building.
“There are lots of possibles...if it [Ug99] came on somebody's clothing to North America...basically that's impossible to stop,” stated Fetch.
To develop new resistant varieties, pathologists examined three wheat genes with resistance to Ug99. New varieties will hopefully reduce the number of spores and mutations.
Supporting these scientists as they further investigate ways to resolve this global crisis, are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Kingdom. They have generously funded $40 million to the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project.
Stem rust outbreaks are not only spreading across Africa but also causing a wheat production disaster. Scientists such as Tom Fetch are, one step at a time, working to resolve this epidemic.