April 03, 2008

Cornell and Bill Gates Announce Evolution-Based Effort to Combat Puccinia graminis Ug99

About a month ago, it was announced that the Ug99 strain of Puccinia graminis had arrived in Iran, a full two years sooner than it had been expected to arrive there. This is the strain to which 90% of the world's wheat crops have no resistance. It could potentially trigger starvation throughout Asia and touch off economic and social turmoil the world over. The good news is that the situation is starting to be addressed in concerted ways, the latest of which is the establishment of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat Project. The project aims to develop wheat that has a combination of many genes that will give it the capability to resist not only Ug99 but future hypervirulent strains that could well emerge in the future.

Grant Awarded to Save Wheat From Fungus

Cornell University hopes a new $26.8 million grant can help them combat the emergence of deadly new strains of rust disease and help avert a pandemic that could produce catastrophic wheat crop losses worldwide.

The grant, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will be used to develop improved rust-resistant wheat varieties and support critical wheat rust screening facilities in Kenya and Ethiopia, as well as track the spread of new variants and foster global awareness, said project director Ronnie Coffman of Cornell.

"We need to mobilize a worldwide effort. This could have a staggering impact if left unchecked," he said in a telephone interview from Obregon, Mexico, where Cornell and Gates Foundation officials announced the new Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project Wednesday at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center...

Recurring droughts and increased demand already have driven the price for some types of wheat to as much as $20 a bushel, up from about $4.50 a year ago — even without the full effect of the newest fungus strain.

Rust disease has been a historical scourge for farmers. The Romans prayed to a "stem rust god" to protect their crops. In 1953, a rust epidemic reduced spring wheat production in Canada and the U.S. by as much as 40 percent...

Large commercial wheat farmers in developed countries can afford to purchase expensive fungicides to protect their crops — although Shah noted that such treatments are only a short-term fix and pose risks to human health and the environment.

Even greater losses could occur if Ug99 continues to spread across Central Asia, where there are at least 296 million acres of wheat fields, said Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug, who developed some of the original rust-resistant wheat varieties in the 1940s and is regarded as one of the fathers of the so-called "green revolution..."

Coffman and his colleagues at Cornell will focus on identifying genetic markers and developing rust-resistant wheat types in collaboration with scientists in Ethiopia, Kenya, Mexico and Syria.

Cornell also will work with scientists in China and the Philippines to study rice, a cereal crop that has proven immune to rust diseases. Research laboratories in Australia, Canada and South Africa also will be involved in the project.
This is all very good news, I think. Borlaug is correct, of course, that a thoroughly international effort is required to combat the spread of the Ugandan P. graminis and the Gates Foundation is to be commended for putting up real money for this effort. I have no idea how much the US federal government is putting into research for this, but this should be a high priority.

It's worth mention that the solution to the Ug99 problem, as well as the origin of the strain itself, are utterly reliant upon evolutionary theory. The new strain arose due to selective pressure engendered by the inclusion of just three new genes in selectively bred wheat crops that were successful in staving off other strains after the massive outbreak of the 1950's. It took just 50 years for the fungus to find the right combination of mutations to allow it to overcome that resistance and begin spreading as a new strain. In engineering a solution, our increased understanding of the molecular basis of evolution has already led us to new insights about how to approach the problem using a multigene approach; in theory, it should be possible to predict how genes for resistance will be needed to provide very long-term protection that will put wheat far ahead of P. graminis' capacity to respond with its own set of molecular weapons. By making predictions based on the rates of evolution seen in the pathogen and then essentially vastly accelerating the evolution of wheat, it is possible to create a crop that will be resistant to the fungus for centuries instead of just a few decades. That's how far we've come in evolutionary biology in a mere 50 years.

This is also the exact thing that to which those who oppose evolutionary biology would like to put an end. Without people who have been profoundly educated in the principles that underpin every discipline of biology, there would be no solution to the devastation of P. graminis. Instead, we'd still be doing exactly what the ancient Romans did when confronted with the plague of stem rust — we'd go an pray to whatever was our equivalent of the "stem rust god" as the specter of starvation ravened the world. Such is the outcome of superstition. Thankfully, we do have scientists freed from such shackles and philanthropists willing to provide for the fiscal needs to get the job done.

If all we had were people like Ben Stein, Ronda Storms and Ray Comfort, our only hope would be for a quick demise.

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