News Release

$7.3M grant to expand wheat pathogen surveillance

Grant and Award Announcement

Cornell University

ITHACA, N.Y. -- One of the world’s largest crop pathogen surveillance systems is set to expand its capacity to protect wheat productivity in food vulnerable areas of East Africa and South Asia.

The Wheat Disease Early Warning Advisory System (Wheat DEWAS) – which expands an existing monitoring system – was funded through a $7.3 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office to enhance crop resilience to wheat diseases.

The project is led by David Hodson, principal scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (known by its Spanish language acronym CIMMYT), and Maricelis Acevedo, research professor of global development and plant pathology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The project, which involves six interlinked work packages, brings together research expertise from 23 research and academic organizations from sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Europe, the United States and Mexico.

Previous long-term investments in rust pathogen surveillance, modeling and diagnostics built one of the largest operational global surveillance and monitoring systems for any crop disease. Wheat DEWAS seeks to build on that foundation to create a scalable, integrated and sustainable solution that can provide local agencies with insights into emerging and migrating wheat diseases.

The system focuses on responding to and containing the two major fungal pathogens of wheat, known as rust and blast diseases. Rust diseases, named for a rust-like appearance on infected plants, are variable and can significantly reduce crop yields when they attack. The fungus releases trillions of spores that can ride wind currents across national borders and continents, and spread devastating epidemics quickly over vast areas.

Wheat blast, caused by the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype Triticum, is an increasing threat to wheat production, following detection in both Bangladesh and Zambia. The fungus spreads over short distances and through the planting of infected seeds. Grains of infected plants shrivel within a week of first symptoms, providing little time for farmers to take preventative actions. Most wheat grown in the world has limited resistance to wheat blast.

The initiative that Acevedo leads at Cornell aims to strengthen national partner capacity in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia in East Africa, and Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan in South Asia. The work, which builds off more than a decade of national program capacity building for wheat through the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, focuses on increasing the human capabilities for pathogen surveillance, diagnostics, modeling, data management, early warning assessment and open science publishing.

Acevedo will develop and deliver advanced training in the target countries around areas of diagnostics, pathogen surveillance, epidemiological models and more, with a focus on supporting women and early-career scientists.

“The impact of these diseases is greatest on small-scale producers, negatively affecting livelihoods, income and food security,” Acevedo said. “Ultimately, with this project we aim to maximize opportunities for smallholder farmers to benefit from hyper-local analytic and knowledge systems to protect wheat productivity.”

The system has proven successful and helped prevent a potential rust outbreak in Ethiopia in 2021. At that time, the early warning and global monitoring detected a new yellow rust strain with high epidemic potential. Risk mapping and real-time early forecasting identified the risk and allowed a timely and effective response by farmers and officials. That growing season ended up breaking records for Ethiopian wheat farmers.

While wheat is the major focus of the system, pathogens with similar biology and dispersal modes exist for all major crops. Discoveries made in the wheat system could provide essential infrastructure, methods for data collection and analysis to aid interventions that will be relevant to other crops.

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