Scientists say they are close to producing super varieties of wheat that will protect the world's most important food crop from variants of Ug99, a new and deadly form of wheat rust, while boosting yields by as much as 15 percent.
Up to 90 percent of wheat now in production, including most wheat grown in the Americas, Asia and Africa-is susceptible to Ug99 and its variants.
Concerns that damage could be inflicted on wheat fields around the world has prompted a vigorous international response spearheaded by the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, as scientists contemplate unprecedented losses to a crop that is the main source of sustenance for millions of people.
"We are facing the prospect of a biological firestorm, but it's also clear that the research community has responded to the threat at top speed, and we are getting results in the form of new varieties that are resistant to rust and appealing to farmers," said Ronnie Coffman, who heads the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project at Cornell University, which is coordinating the fight against the disease.
" We are dealing with a constantly-evolving pathogen, and we need to stay at least one step ahead of it at all times."
Coffman and his colleagues note that significant obstacles will have to be overcome before the new varieties of wheat can replace susceptible varieties that cover most of an estimated 225 million hectares of wheat fields throughout the world.
The move to protect the world from Ug99 is focused not on creating a single variety of wheat that can withstand the disease, but, rather, on conferring genetic resistance in wheat and transferring these traits to local varieties.
The research will be presented at a global wheat rust symposium in Minneapolis.