Public Release:  Ph.D. students in India, Ethiopia and Kenya to fight wheat stripe rust

BBSRC and Gates-funded work to tackle major wheat disease

Norwich BioScience Institutes

Four PhD students appointed in India, Kenya and Ethiopia, will contribute to £1.4 million research to combat wheat stripe rust. A year of their projects will take place in Norwich or Cambridge, as part of a major international effort to improve crop production in developing countries.

Stripe rust poses a serious threat to wheat production. In recent years epidemics of new strains of this fungal disease have resulted in up to 40% yield losses in large wheat-producing areas across the world. These epidemics increase the price of food, threatening rural livelihoods and food security.

"In Kenya 80% of farmers growing wheat are smallholders who struggle to afford fungicide," said PhD student Mercy Wamalwa of Eggerton University, Kenya.

"Wheat is an important income generator for the resource-poor farmers of Ethiopia who sell their surplus produce on the domestic market," added Sisay Kidane, PhD student at the Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia, and a researcher at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural research.

The most economic and environmentally sustainable way to fight this devastating disease is to develop genetically resistant wheat varieties. Most modern wheat possesses poor resistance to stripe rust. The project will make use of the genetic diversity in a collection of nearly 650 wheat varieties amassed from around the world in the 1920s, before intensive wheat breeding began.

These so-called 'landraces' produce low yields by modern standards but they represent a potential treasure trove of resistance to stripe rust. The wheat plants will be grown in locations in the home countries of the PhD students and in the UK and assessed for their resilience to stripe rust. The resistance from the best landraces will be bred into modern varieties to produce new high-yielding rust-resistant wheat.

Wild relatives of wheat are another source of valuable diversity. As part of the project, two wild species of goatgrass with strong resistance to stripe rust are under investigation for the source of that resistance.

"If we can identify one of the disease resistance genes from goatgrass we will know what to look for when mining the genomes of other grasses for resistance," commented Mitaly Bansal from Punjab Agricultural University, India.

"It will also provide us with diagnostic markers to track resistance genes in breeding programmes to maximize the potential for durable disease resistance in the field," added Deepika Narang, also from Punjab Agricultural University.

The new project is part of the Sustainable Crop Production Research for International Development, funded by the Department for International Development, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and India's Department of Biotechnology.

As part of their studies the PhD students will spend one year abroad in one of the UK partner institutions, which include the John Innes Centre and The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, and the National Institute of Botany in Cambridge. All project partners met each other at the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative workshop held this year in New Delhi. This annual meeting brings together wheat breeders, agronomists and farmers from around the world who continue the work of the late Norman Borlaug to preserve the world's wheat harvests from the devastating effect of rusts.

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Further background

For the press release launching the project a year ago including quotes from the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/news/food-security/2012/121120-pr-bioscience-to-help-poor-farmers.aspx

The grant is one coordinated by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) under the Sustainable Crop Production Research for International Development (SCPRID) programme, a joint multi-national initiative of BBSRC and the UK Government's Department for International Development (DFID), together with (through a grant awarded to BBSRC) the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) of India's Ministry of Science and Technology.

Over 40 international research organisations are joining forces in a unique £16M initiative that will harness bioscience to improve food security in developing countries. Funding has been awarded to 11 new research projects which will develop ways to improve the sustainability of vital food crops in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. The projects aim to develop staple crops better able to resist pests or thrive in harsh environmental conditions.

The £16M is made up of £3M from BBSRC, £5M from the Gates Foundation (through a grant to BBSRC) and £7M from DFID. A further £1M has been provided by the DBT of India's Ministry of Science and Technology for projects involving India.

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