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Protecting Wheat Harvests from Destruction

News Article
5 January 2009

The IAEA is working with countries to help identify wheat varieties that are resistant to diseases that can destroy harvests (Photo: P. Pavlicek/IAEA)

Wheat stem rust (race Ug99), which was first identified in Uganda in 1999, is a new variety of an old crop disease called "stem rust".

It is particularly alarming because it can infect crops in just a few hours and vast clouds of invisible spores can be carried by the wind for hundreds of miles. Since 1999, Ug99 has spread alarmingly into the wheat producing countries of North Africa and the Middle East, mutating quickly to break down the defenses of each new wheat variety it encounters. In 2001 Ug99 was identified in Kenya, 2003 in Ethiopia, 2007 in Yemen, and in 2008 it had spread to Iran. Experts project that the "bread basket" of Europe (Kazakhstan and Ukraine) and later India and China will be next on its hit-list. Wheat provides 20% of the world's calories, and Ug99 is capable of cutting wheat yields by 20 to 80 percent, with isolated incidents of 100 percent destruction. About 90% of commercial high-yielding wheat is vulnerable to Ug99.

So scientists are working to select new wheat varieties that are impervious to the fungus. Fungicides, the current method used to prevent Ug99, is expensive and environmentally suspect. "The IAEA realizes that it must act before this becomes an even bigger emergency": to address the threat, experts from 26 countries met in Vienna, Austria, to join international efforts, focusing on applications of nuclear techniques in agriculture. Cooperative global efforts have intensified following the wake-up call of Nobel Laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug, who has warned that "Ug99 is the most serious threat to wheat and barley in 50 years." The meeting, Responding to the Transboundary Threat of Wheat Black Stem Rust (Ug99), is launching a programme to determine if any of the existing mutant wheat varieties that are bred in laboratories worldwide are resistant to Ug99.

The 26 experts are from countries that are either affected, threatened, or - as in the case of the USA and Australia - are supporting research into Ug99-resistant wheat.

Scientists are accelerating research into new varieties of wheat to identify those resistant to an aggressive fungus that is destroying harvests in African and Middle Eastern countries. An FAO/IAEA technical meeting brought together 26 experts (including video and telephone conference calls) from 17 Member States (Algeria, Australia, China, Ethiopia, Jordan, India, Iran, Kenya, Pakistan, South Africa, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, USA and Yemen) and nine international and national institutions and organizations (Borlaug Global Rust Initiative BGRI, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA; International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), Mexico, Kenya; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome, Italy; International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Vienna, Seibersdorf, Austria; International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), Syria; Western Australia Department of Agriculture (DAFWA), Perth, Australia; Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Mumbai; Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), Beijing, China; United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), University of Missouri, USA) on an Interregional TC project on Responding to the Transboundary Threat of Wheat Black Stem Rust (Ug99) (INT/5/150). Further, six additional Member States (Bangladesh, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco and Oman) have been invited as a complement to the existing list of project members.

CAAS, Cornell University, DAFWA and USDA-ARS have extensive expertise, genetic resources, human resources and track records of successful activities relevant to this project. Their contributions will include genetic resources, experimental protocols, capacity building and several aspects of mentoring to developing Member States project members with less developed capabilities. The strategic location of BARC in the epidemiology of the disease and extensive expertise in the use of induced mutations to develop better crop varieties makes the participation of this institute of special interest to the project.

The pandemic of Wheat (black) stem rust, caused by the fungal pathogen Puccinia graminis f. sp. tritici race Ug99, a virulent stem rust race, is able to override existing resistance on several cultivated wheat and barley varieties. Wheat stem rust is among the most serious diseases of wheat worldwide and represents a major immediate threat to wheat and barley production in the East Africa and the Near East regions. Noble Peace Prize Winner, Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, believes that Ug99 is the most serious threat to wheat and barley in 50 years. The threat might be compared to the Avian Flu as this "Wheat Influenza" is not only threatening the world bread basket - it has already caused an increase in wheat prices, as all commercial varieties are sensitive to the disease - but it also threatens barley. The occurrence of Ug99 that has triggered a Global Rust Initiative shows the great danger for important yield losses on the currently grown wheat cultivars. Wide spread of Ug99 (http://www.globalrust.org) in Ethiopia and its detection in Yemen in 2006 and in Iran in 2007, has lead to global action by the international community that lead to the establishment of the BGRI that calls for global collaboration to combat the eminent threat of Ug99.

The IAEA TC programmes recognize that their work with Member States is relevant to the BGRI. The aim of INT/5/150 is to generate genetic variation for resistance to Ug99 based on mutation technology. IAEA has good track records to use the technology and assist Member States through transfer of relevant nuclear technologies to solve emergent problems through national programme management approaches. IAEA has 144 Member States with a 35 Member Governing Board, 2200 professional and support staff, and 51 years of international collaboration on agriculture research. IAEA is an ideal partner in the BGRI as it could easily streamline collaboration with national programmes and contribute effectively to the control of Ug99 through mutation assisted breeding by broadening the genetic base as well as the integration of bio-/molecular technologies, such as e.g. double haploids to accelerate breeding efficiency of national programmes.

End users will include all stakeholders in the wheat and barley growing regions in Africa, the Near East and Asia. Beneficiaries are all wheat growers and consumers through enhanced productivity and favourable wheat price development as a result of threat control. Wheat prices are not gender dependent, thus the outcome of the project profits both genders. The project will complement the ongoing international activities and provide a platform for the coordination of a network of upgraded research laboratories (based on the previously established laboratory infrastructure though the IAEA's TC projects). The project meets IAEA central criteria as it clearly relates to national programmes that are committed to collaborate in the achievements of the project goals.

Operative coordination shall include: The IAEA (Vienna: scientific backstopping, Seibersdorf: adaptive R&D/training/technology transfer) in close collaboration with ICARDA in Syria, backstopped by DAFWA, Australia and USDA-ARS, USA. The FAO (Rome) is entrusted with the normative coordination. Screening is under the supervision of CIMMYT in Kenya. Sustainability is warranted by the BGRI (http://www.globalrust.org).

Production/screening of resistant mutant wheat and barley germplasm (including previously produced mutant germplasm in national and regional TCPs):
All collaborating countries have the following ongoing and/or completed mutation breeding projects: RAS/5/048 (active), Mutation Induction and Supportive Breeding and Biotechnologies for Improving Crop Productivity (ARASIA): Improving regional partnership in the field of mutation induction to enhance breeding for food security and socio-economic development (target crops including wheat and barley); RAF/5/056 (active), Field Evaluation and Dissemination of Improved Crop Varieties Using Mutation Breeding and Biotechnology Techniques (AFRA II-5): Assisting AFRA Member States in the development and dissemination of improved mutation induced staple and market oriented crops; ALG/5/024 (active), Improvement of Cereals for Tolerance to Drought and Resistance to Disease: Increasing cereal production (wheat and barley) by introducing new high yield varieties tolerant to biotic and abiotic stresses at the farmer's level; SUD/5/030 (active), Increasing Productivity of Selected Crops Using Nuclear Related Techniques: Using nuclear techniques to expand production of established varieties including wheat lines and increasing the productivity of new varieties; TUR/5/023 (active), Application of Nuclear and Gene-based Biotechnology in Agriculture; KEN/5/024 (successfully completed in 2007), Crop Improvement and Management through Application of Nuclear and Biotechnology Techniques: Establishing a biotechnology laboratory for molecular characterization of induced mutants and thus enhancing the efficiency and widening the application of induced mutations in crop improvement, e.g. quality, yield, biotic stress and disease tolerance in Turkey; PAK/5/040 (successfully completed in 2007), Improvement of Heat-Tolerant Semi-Dwarf Bread Wheat Through Radiation-Induced Mutations.

The implementation of the project will be conducted in four interlinked phases for a duration of five years (2009-2013). During the first three years (2009-2011) the project activities (Activities 1-4) will focus on the assessment of existing mutant germplasm, initiation of induced mutagenesis of selected wheat and barley germplasm targeting resistance to Ug99 and its variants, upgrading research facilities, and on human resource development (capacity building, technology transfer). The last two years (2012-2013), the project will focus on multisite testing and selection for additional traits at countries' level.

Activity 1. Screening of existing mutant germplasm from different countries at Kenya Critical Screening Facilities
The participating countries will send elite material to Kenya critical screening facilities by end May 2009. The material will be exchanged under the Standard Material Transfer Agreement (SMTA) in agreement of screening guidelines at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), Njoro (www.globalrust.org). The material will be assembled under the first International Mutant Wheat Evaluation Nursery (IMWEN) and planted in June. Stem rust will be induced by inoculations with local Ug99 lineage pathotypes. The collaborators will visit their material in November 2009 and screen the nurseries. Evaluation will be conducted for adult plant response to stem rust.

Activity 2. Countries establish mutant breeding programme
Member countries will establish their mutation breeding programme at respective labs based on 1-2 elite varieties and will develop M1. The M2 will be sent to secondary hot spot in Kenya for preliminary screening to Ug99 races.

Activity 3. Screening of M2-cycles from countries in Kenya secondary hot spot
M2 received from each country (activity 2) will be screened in Kenya secondary hot spot. The elite resistant lines will be selected and potential lines will be selected and assembled under second IMWEN.

Activity 4. Screening of IMWEN at critical facilities in Kenya
The third IMWEN will be screened at primary hot spot of BGRI critical facilities at Kenya (Njoro) primary hot spot. Any resistant material identified will be tested at multi-location hot spots. Resistant lines will be assembled under second IMWEN and tested in Ethiopia (Kulumsa, Debra Zeit), and Yemen (Tehama, Dhamar). Activities 2-4 will be repeated in 2010 and 2011 using different parental sources, thus producing 300 000 mutant wheat lines screened for resistance to Ug99.

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