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A 'time bomb' for world wheat crop

Discussion in 'Science & Technology' started by The Scotsman, Jun 15, 2009.

  1. The Scotsman

    The Scotsman Well-Known Member

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    The Ug99 fungus, called stem rust, could wipe out more than 80% of the world's wheat as it spreads from Africa, scientists fear. The race is on to breed resistant plants before it reaches the U.S.

    [​IMG]

    The spores arrived from Kenya on dried, infected leaves ensconced in layers of envelopes.

    Working inside a bio-secure greenhouse outfitted with motion detectors and surveillance cameras, government scientists at the Cereal Disease Laboratory in St. Paul, Minn., suspended the fungal spores in a light mineral oil and sprayed them onto thousands of healthy wheat plants. After two weeks, the stalks were covered with deadly reddish blisters characteristic of the scourge known as Ug99.
    Crop scientists fear the Ug99 fungus could wipe out more than 80% of worldwide wheat crops as it spreads from eastern Africa. It has already jumped the Red Sea and traveled as far as Iran. Experts say it is poised to enter the breadbasket of northern India and Pakistan, and the wind will inevitably carry it to Russia, China and even North America -- if it doesn't hitch a ride with people first.

    "It's a time bomb," said Jim Peterson, a professor of wheat breeding and genetics at Oregon State University in Corvallis. "It moves in the air, it can move in clothing on an airplane. We know it's going to be here. It's a matter of how long it's going to take."


    Though most Americans have never heard of it, Ug99 -- a type of fungus called stem rust because it produces reddish-brown flakes on plant stalks -- is the No. 1 threat to the world's most widely grown crop.

    The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico estimates that 19% of the world's wheat, which provides food for 1 billion people in Asia and Africa, is in imminent danger. American plant breeders say $10 billion worth of wheat would be destroyed if the fungus suddenly made its way to U.S. fields.

    Fear that the fungus will cause widespread damage has caused short-term price spikes on world wheat markets. Famine has been averted thus far, but experts say it's only a matter of time.

    "A significant humanitarian crisis is inevitable," said Rick Ward, the coordinator of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

    The solution is to develop new wheat varieties that are immune to Ug99. That's much easier said than done.

    After several years of feverish work, scientists have identified a mere half-dozen genes that are immediately useful for protecting wheat from Ug99. Incorporating them into crops using conventional breeding techniques is a nine- to 12-year process that has only just begun. And that process will have to be repeated for each of the thousands of wheat varieties that is specially adapted to a particular region and climate.

    "All the seed needs to change in the next few years," said Ronnie Coffman, a plant breeder who heads the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project. "It's really an enormous undertaking."

    Ancient adversary

    Farmers have been battling stem rust for as long as they have grown wheat. The fungus' ancestors infected wild grasses for millions of years before people began cultivating them for food, said Jorge Dubcovsky, professor of genetics and plant breeding at UC Davis.

    "The pathogen keeps mutating and evolving," he said. "It's one of our biblical pests. This is not a small enemy."

    When a spore lands on a green wheat plant, it forms a pustule that invades the outer layers of the stalk. The pustule hijacks the plant's water and nutrients and diverts them to produce new rust spores instead of grain. Within two weeks of an initial attack, there can be millions of pustules in a 2.5-acre patch of land.

    Wheat plants that can recognize a specific chemical produced by stem rust can mount a defense against the fungus. But the rust is able to mutate, evade the plant's immune system and resume its spread.

    Stem rust destroyed more than 20% of U.S. wheat crops several times between 1917 and 1935, and losses reached nearly 9% twice in the 1950s. The last major outbreak, in 1962, destroyed 5.2% of the U.S. crop, according to Peterson, who chairs the National Wheat Improvement Committee.

    The fungus was kept at bay for years by breeders who slowly and methodically incorporated different combinations of six major stem rust resistance genes into various varieties of wheat. The breeders thought it unlikely that the rust could overcome clusters of those genes at the same time.

    After several outbreak-free decades, it seemed that stem rust had been defeated for good. Scientists switched to other topics, and the hunt for new resistance genes practically slowed to a crawl.

    A new strain of stem rust was identified on a wheat farm in Uganda in 1999.

    "It didn't draw a lot of attention, frankly," said Marty Carson, research leader at the Cereal Disease Laboratory, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "There's very little wheat grown in Uganda."

    East Africa is a natural hot spot for stem rust. Weather conditions allow farmers to grow wheat year-round, so rust spores can always find a susceptible host. Some of the wheat is grown as high as 7,000 feet above sea level, where intense solar radiation helps the fungus mutate.

    The highlands are also home to barberry bushes, the only plant on which stem rust is known to reproduce through sexual recombination. That genetic shuffling provides a golden opportunity for the fungus to evolve into a deadly strain.

    Within a few years, Ug99 (named for the country and year it was identified) had devastated farms in neighboring Kenya, where much of the wheat is grown on large-scale farms that have so far been able to absorb the blow. Then it moved north to Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen, putting more small farms at risk. Those that can afford it are trying to make do with fungicides, but that's too cumbersome and expensive to be a long-term solution, Ward said.

    To make matters worse, the fungus is becoming more virulent as it spreads. Scientists discovered a Ug99 variant in 2006 that can defeat Sr24, a resistance gene that protects Great Plains wheat.

    Last year, another variant was found with immunity to Sr36, a gene that safeguards Eastern wheat.

    Should those variants make their way to U.S. fields any time soon, scientists would be hard-pressed to protect American wheat crops.

    A laborious task

    Now the pressure is on to develop new wheat varieties that are impervious to Ug99. Hundreds of varieties will need to be upgraded in the U.S. alone.

    "You can't just breed it into one or two major varieties and expect to solve the problem," Peterson said. "You have to reinvent this wheel at almost a local level."

    The first step is to identify Ug99 resistance genes by finding wheat plants that can withstand the deadly fungus.

    Roughly 16,000 wheat varieties and other plants have been tested in the cereal disease lab over the last four years. The tests were conducted between Dec. 1 and the end of February, when the Minnesota weather is so frigid that escaping spores would quickly perish, Carson said.

    These and similar efforts at a research station in Kenya have turned up only a handful of promising resistance genes, which crop breeders such as Brett Carver at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater are trying to import into vulnerable strains of wheat.

    Each year, Carver crosses hundreds of plants in a greenhouse to produce as many as 50,000 candidate strains. Over the next four years, those are winnowed down, and the most promising 2,000 are planted in the field.

    Only the hardiest strains are replanted each year, until the 12-year process results in a single new variety with dozens of valuable traits, such as the ability to withstand drought and make fluffy bread.

    The oldest of the plants Carver bred for Ug99 resistance are only 3 years old, but one of the strains has been planted in the field already in case the fungus hitches a quick ride to the U.S. on an airplane or in a shipping container.

    "In the absence of stem rust, it would not be the highest-yielding wheat," he said. "In the presence of stem rust, it would be the only thing that would survive."

    karen.kaplan@latimes.com

    http://www.latimes.com/news/nationw...at-rust14-2009jun14,0,1661589.story?track=rss
     
  2. Mare Tranquillity

    Mare Tranquillity Active Member

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    It's always, "Good morning! And welcome to the rest of the trouble.":mad:
     
  3. Pandora

    Pandora Well-Known Member

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    Sounds like the third horseman to me.
     
  4. Mare Tranquillity

    Mare Tranquillity Active Member

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    I remember that Grandma Soderquist once observed that there were a lot more horse's asses in the world than there were horses.
     
  5. Pandora

    Pandora Well-Known Member

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    Who is Grandma Soderquist? I think she was very bright:)
     
  6. Mare Tranquillity

    Mare Tranquillity Active Member

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    She was a philosopher of sorts. She once said that a map tells you everything but how to refold it.

    Of course, on the subject of maps, Imo Phillips claims to have a map of the US and he says it's full size.
     
  7. Pandora

    Pandora Well-Known Member

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    It must be a magic map. How come someone does not do some news stories on these people. They are full of hate and I would say its possible that they are dangerous.
     
  8. Mare Tranquillity

    Mare Tranquillity Active Member

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    There have been numerous new stories about these nutbars down through the years, but mostly people try to ignore them lest they be encouraged by the publicity.

    They've been going around demonstrating at soldier's funerals, saying that the soldier's deaths are God's punishment for the US allowing gay people to live here without persecution (death).
     
  9. Pandora

    Pandora Well-Known Member

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    I just did some youtube searches on them, they are sick



    ok back to topic

    this is scary stuff and if you add the the US Government discourages people from growing wheat in large fields... this could be really bad.

    My family grows wheat in Eastern Oregon and its hard just to get a crop planted and harvested anymore with the environmentalists who worry more for a beavers damn than they do for a farmers field.


    Between this and the delta shmelt it looks like things are going to get bad.
     
  10. samsara15

    samsara15 Member

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    Given the coming water problems, and the coming food problems, we best do all we can to encourage farmers, lest food shortages reach our shores, sooner rather than later.
     
  11. Pandora

    Pandora Well-Known Member

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    Agreed! But now someone needs to tell the state of Calif this. They turned the water off that helps the farmers in Bakersfield area. Many have lost their jobs, Farms dying and these farms are what we count on for food for many places in the US for the summer and fall.
     
  12. PLC1

    PLC1 Moderator Staff Member

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    The farmers are holding protests, but so far not many outside the valley are listening to them.

    Threats to agriculture are many, and yet seem to get little attention. I'm not sure just why that is.

    Here in California, the lack of water is #1. The aquifer under the Central Valley, which despite being a desert is one of the most productive lands in the world, keeps going down every year. The water that falls mostly as snow in the Sierra is less than the water that is being used, even during wet years. Meanwhile, the second biggest river in the state, the San Joaquin, has for years been used up, every drop. This is a river that once supported ocean going vessels and now runs dry.

    Well, for a while, it will be dry. It seems that the courts have ordered that some water be replaced. Whether or not that water is used farther downstream, is pumped back up, or simply goes to the ocean, is yet to be decided.

    It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the potential effect that could have on that water table.


    The biggest freshwater lake in the country (excluding the great lakes) was once found just north of Bakersfield in the central valley. It is now completely dry. Subsidized water is being used to farm cotton in the former lake bed.

    Meanwhile the Ogalalla Aquifer, the one that supports corn that we waste by turning it into ethanol, is also being depleted.

    Add threats like the one that started this thread, and we have the third horseman that Pandora pointed out riding tall in the saddle.
     
  13. The Scotsman

    The Scotsman Well-Known Member

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    ....sadly perhaps it does! And finally when its too late everyone looks around for someone to blame.
     
  14. samsara15

    samsara15 Member

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    Ethanol begins to look like another green mistake. It's nice to be green, and identify the problems, but it's even better to have a good solution. It takes tens of thousands of years to replenish aquifiers.
     
  15. Pandora

    Pandora Well-Known Member

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    Its like the gas thing. When gas prices are low no one worries much and they are willing to do stupid things that waste money and time for the sake of the environment exc. When gas prices go high everyone wants to drill baby drill and tap natural gas exc. Then gas got lower again and they stopped telling their congressmen to drill here drill now. As prices rise they will re-chant it all again.

    The wheat and the farms in general, no one is going to pay attention to till they have to pay 5 bucks for a tomato or 2 dollars for an ear of corn. then they will rant and rave that we have to take care of the farmers but by then the farms will be dead and the farmers bankrupt.

    What I dont understand is why people are more interested in who won American Idol or who is on some other TV show but they dont care about the functions of our country till its too damn late :(
     
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