Posts Tagged ‘BGRI’

Constantly vigilant: Q&A with rust disease scientist Sridhar Bhavani

Sridhar Bhavani at a UG99 wheat stem rust screening event in Njoro, Kenya. Photo: University of Minnesota, David Hansen

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) Senior Scientist and Head of Rust Pathology and Molecular Genetics Sridhar Bhavani has been fighting the spread of deadly wheat rusts for over 15 years.  He recently presented “A Decade of Stem Rust Phenotyping Network: Opportunities, Challenges and Way Forward” at the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative Technical Workshop in October.

We picked his brain about the growing danger of rust diseases, the newest weapons fighting them, and how researchers both within and outside the CGIAR system can best help wheat smallholder farmers in this seemingly never-ending battle.


Q: It seems like the rust races keep mutating, growing, and spreading and crop breeders and scientists are constantly in a position of reacting. Is this happening faster than in the past or does it just seem that way? Is this a factor of climate change, less diverse modern varieties, something else? Will we ever get ahead of the curve?

A: That’s right. Such events can in part be attributed to climate change. In the case of yellow rust races, we have seen the evolution of new aggressive races that are adapted to warmer temperatures in the last two decades, an unusual acclimatization for this disease. These races initiate early infection and with faster disease progression,  produce large amounts of spores and rapidly evolve to overcome resistant genes. The northern Himalayan region has been identified as a diversity hotspot for these aggressive races, resulting in significant yield losses and global migration of these races.

Interestingly, stem rust races of the Ug99 group have also adapted to cooler environments at altitudes over 3000 meters, which have been identified in the foothills of Mt. Kenya. Recent reports of stem rust variants of the “Digelu” race group, which has resurfaced in the United Kingdom and Europe, is a grave concern considering that the disease was practically under control for over 30 years.

Such diverse, fast-evolving, migrating populations pose a great challenge for breeding programs to continuously scout and deploy new resistant genes. For example, in Mexico, a new race with virulence has evolved every other year over the course of 12 years.

The lack of diversity of resistance genes (genetic uniformity) or combinations of multiple genes in varieties occupying vast production areas (mega varieties) compounds the issue of climate change. This can result in significant yield losses when resistant genes break down.

Different approaches have been used to enhance resistance durability, enabling breeders to stay ahead of the curve:

  • Pyramiding: Combining 2-3 resistance genes in a single variety makes it difficult for pathogens to overcome multiple genes at once.
  • Deploying complex race- non-specific pleotropic adult plant resistance (APR) genes: These genes, such as Sr2, Lr34, Lr46, Lr67 and Lr68, condition partial resistance against multiple diseases (leaf rust, stem rust, yellow rust, powdery mildew, etc.) and are present in CIMMYT germplasm. Combinations of three to four APR genes can enhance resistance to near-immune levels. Though cumbersome, it has been quite effective to keep rust under control over the last two decades.
  • Transgenic cassette approach: It is now possible to transform wheat lines with a cassette of up to eight multiple-cloned resistance genes. This approach stacks multiple resistance genes in the same cultivar and can enhance durability for longer periods. However, current regulatory framework in developed and developing nations doesn’t allow cultivation of transgenic wheat.
Stem rust. Photo: David Hansen, University of Minnesota

Q: What do you think are the areas where the global crop science/agricultural policy community can do better to help smallholder farmers?

A: The community should focus on developing long-term sustainable solutions:

  • Focus on genetic solutions for resource-poor smallholder farmers who lack access to fungicides
  • Eliminate older, susceptible varieties from wheat production areas.
  • Improve rapid dissemination of tools and technologies through on-farm trials and demonstrations, efficient seed systems, strong national extension networks and communities of practice.
  • Enhance national-level emergency preparedness for crop disease. A country’s response time and ability to contain the infected area and mitigate the damage through both immediate and long-term solutions makes a huge difference.
  • Promote policies that fast-track release, multiplication and testing time of improved resistant varieties, which historically takes six to eight years from the time the line is developed.  

Sridhar inspects rust-infected wheat crops. Photo: David Hansen, University of Minnesota

Q: Where do you see your field of research 20 years from now?  Where do you see the global rust situation 20 years from now? What are you concerned about or optimistic about?

A: I am optimistic that recent advances in sequencing-annotated wheat reference genomes and detailed analyses of gene content among sub-genomes will accelerate our understanding of bread wheat genetics. Wheat breeders can now use this information to identify agronomic traits, like grain quality, yield, abiotic stress tolerance and disease resistance.

Furthermore, the global rust monitoring and surveillance network has helped to understand pathogenic diversity in different geographies and possible migration patterns; and develop early forecasts and warning measures in risk-prone areas. These tools enable breeders to stay ahead of the race, and pre-emptive breeding helps them prepare for incursion of new races.

One of my bigger concerns is the “yield is king” mindset in developed countries. High-yielding but rust-susceptible varieties are being promoted with the view that the yield benefit will compensate for the cost of fungicides in disease years. Since this notion is also being promoted in developing countries, a major epidemic–coupled with fungicide supply shortages–can lead to disasters that will seriously impact smallholder farmers.


Q: Do you see the coming reform of CGIAR as having an impact on rust screening and resistance research?  Do you have a message for funders and/or those who are setting the One CGIAR research agenda?

A: Disease and pest resistance for crops, livestock, fisheries and forestry should be high on the agenda. We have witnessed significant impact of pest and pathogen resurgence in the last decade, beyond rust races. The variability and constant evolution of pests puts extreme pressure on breeders and researchers to be constantly vigilant against the emergence of new races, biotypes or strains.

Several threats have been effectively mitigated through global collaboration for surveillance and breeding. This facilitates screening and selection at hot spot sites and accelerates varietal release and adoption. Information-sharing partnerships to detect changes in virulence patterns would greatly reduce the need for fungicide and promote greater stability and sustainability of yield across agricultural environments.

A multidisciplinary approach involving pathologists, breeders, geneticists, physiologists, agronomists, simulation specialists and upstream bioinformaticians at different stages of research and development will be necessary to develop improved cultivars with stable and durable resistance to pests and diseases.

View Sridhar Bhavani’s full BGRI Workshop Presentation, “A Decade of Stem Rust Phenotyping Network: Opportunities, Challenges and Way Forward”


Genome-wide association mapping finds narrow but high level of wheat blast resistance in CIMMYT’s international nurseries

By Madeline Dahm

Wheat spikes damaged by blast. Photo: Xinyao He, CIMMYT

Wheat blast, caused by the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype Triticum, was first identified in 1985 in South America, but has been seen in Bangladesh in recent years. The expansion of the disease is a great concern for regions of similar environmental conditions in South Asia, and other regions globally.

Although management of the disease using fungicide is possible, it is not completely effective for multiple reasons, including inefficiency during high disease pressure, resistance of the fungal populations to some classes of fungicides, and the affordability of fungicide to resource-poor farmers. Scientists see the development and deployment of wheat with genetic resistance to blast as the most sustainable and farmer-friendly approach to preventing devastating outbreaks around the world.

In an article published in Nature Scientific Reports, a team of scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and partners, led by CIMMYT associate scientist Philomin Juliana, conducted a large genome-wide association study to look for genomic regions that could also be associated with resistance to wheat blast.

Using data collected over the last two years on CIMMYT’s International Bread Wheat Screening Nurseries (IBWSNs) and Semi-Arid Wheat Screening Nurseries (SAWSNs) by collaborators at the Bangladesh Wheat and Maize Research Institute (BWMRI) and the Instituto Nacional de Innovación Agropecuaria y Forestal (INIAF) in Bolivia, Philomin and fellow scientists found 36 significant markers on chromosome 2AS, 3BL, 4AL and 7BL that appeared to be consistently associated with blast resistance across different environments. Among these, 20 markers were found to be in the position of the 2NS translocation, a chromosomal segment transferred to wheat from a wild relative, Aegilops ventricosa, that has very strong and effective resistance to wheat blast.

The team also gained excellent insights into the blast resistance of the globally-distributed CIMMYT germplasm by genomic fingerprinting a panel over 4000 wheat lines for the presence of the 2NS translocation, and found that it was present in 94.1% of lines from IBWSN and 93.7% of lines from SAWSN.  Although it is reassuring that such a high percentage of CIMMYT wheat lines already have the 2NS translocation and implied blast resistance, finding other novel resistance genes will be instrumental in building widespread, global resilience to wheat blast outbreaks in the long-term.

Read the publication by Philomin Juliana, Xinyao He, Muhammad R. Kabir, Krishna K. Roy, Md. Babul Anwar, Felix Marza, Jesse Poland, Sandesh Shrestha, Ravi P. Singh, and Pawan K. Singh

This work was made possible by the generous support of the Delivering Genetic Gains in Wheat (DGGW) project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and managed by Cornell University, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Feed the Future initiative, the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), The Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsråd), and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), #CIM/2016/219.

BGRI launches virtual global wheat conference Oct. 7-9

This press release was originally posted on the website of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI).

As the world grapples with a disastrous human health crisis, scientists will gather virtually October 7-9 to discuss strategies to safeguard the health of one of the planet’s most important food sources — wheat.

The Borlaug Global Rust Initiative’s (BGRI) virtual technical workshop will bring together scientists at the forefront of wheat science for cutting-edge training and knowledge sharing. Experts from global institutions such as Cornell University, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), and the John Innes Centre, with presenters from Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Australia, Finland, Mexico, the United Kingdom and United States, will lead in-depth talks and discussions on the most pressing challenges facing global wheat security.

Event registration is now open.

“Right now we are witnessing the devastation that the global spread of disease can cause, and it underscores the continual threat that diseases pose to our most important food crops,” said Ronnie Coffman, vice-chair of the BGRI and an international professor in Cornell’s Department of Global Development and School of Integrative Plant Science. “Devastating wheat epidemics would be catastrophic to human health and wellbeing. October’s workshop is an opportunity for wheat scientists to converge virtually for the practical training and knowledge-sharing we need to fight numerous challenges.”

The three-day workshop in October will be broken up into sessions with keynotes from leading experts and presentations focused on key areas of wheat research:

  • Breeding technologies
  • Disease surveillance
  • Molecular host-pathogen interaction
  • Disease resistance
  • Gene stewardship

The BGRI is a strong proponent of responsible gene deployment to ensure the efficacy of disease resistant genes available to breeders. Since 2012, the BGRI has bestowed the Gene Stewardship Award in recognition of excellence in the development, multiplication and/or release of rust resistant wheat varieties that encourage diversity and complexity of resistance. The winners of the 2020 BGRI Gene Stewardship award will be announced at the workshop.

Maricelis Acevedo, associate director for science for the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project and researcher in Cornell’s Department of Global Development, said: “The BGRI has been at the forefront of developing the next generation of wheat warriors, especially in strengthening the technical and professional skills of women and men scientists from developing countries. We are taking a global approach to help reduce the threat of diseases that can overwhelm farmers’ wheat fields. Issues related to improving world food security, especially in the face of climate change, can only be addressed by a diverse and united global community.”

She added: “The BGRI’s technical workshop has long been the premiere meeting ground for wheat scientists around the world. It’s more important than ever that we come together to address the challenges before us.”

The BGRI 2020 Technical Workshop originally planned for June 1-4 in Norwich, United Kingdom was postponed due to COVID-19.

Wheat is one of the world’s largest primary commodity, with global production of over 700 million tons, grown on over 215 million hectares. Eaten by over 2.5 billion people in 89 countries, wheat provides 19% of the world’s total available calories and 20% of all protein.

Over the past 20 years, the global area under wheat production has not increased. To produce the required amount of wheat needed to feed the world’s growing population, researchers predict wheat yields must increase at least 1.4% per acre through 2030.

Wheat faces pressure from the changing environment and diseases, especially rust diseases increasingly prevalent in wheat-growing regions everywhere. The BGRI was formed in 2005 in response to a novel strain of rust discovered in East Africa known as Ug99 that posed risks of epidemic proportions to global wheat production. Norman Borlaug galvanized global scientists and donors in a bid to combat Ug99 and other disease pressures.

“The world averted disaster thanks to the commitment of researchers and farmers from all over the world who participated in the BGRI’s coordinated global response,” said Coffman. “With the backing of far-sighted donors, the BGRI focused on delivering rust-resilient varieties of wheat to farmers around the world, and dedicating our efforts to small-holder farmers in wheat-producing countries in Africa and Asia — men and women who do not always have access to new technologies and improved seed.” 

Registration page is now live.

The BGRI is a community of hunger fighters dedicated to protecting the world’s wheat. The initiative receives funding through the DGGW project, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

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Celebrating women leadership in fight to end hunger

This story by Matt Hayes was originally published on the Cornell CALS website.

As the world changes rapidly, new leaders are emerging to tackle the biggest challenges in food and agriculture.

“It is such a difficult time worldwide,” said Barbara Stinson, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, speaking at a virtual event May 21 hosted by the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) about the “Changing Face of Leadership and Research in Wheat.” Stinson joined the World Food Prize Foundation in January just as COVID-19 started sweeping across the globe.

“I have been so impressed by how many leaders are stepping forward in support of global partnerships, and how many of them are women,” she said, adding: “I’m truly energized by the next generation of leadership — those of you, all of you, who are so eager to take up the mission of eliminating hunger.”

The BGRI has been a leader in training and recognizing women scientists working in wheat. The May 21 event honored this year’s Women in Triticum (WIT) awardees, and included Stinson’s keynote address and a panel discussion with former WIT winners. The event was the first in a series of planned virtual workshops from the BGRI.

The WIT Early Career Award provides women researchers with the opportunity for additional training, mentorship, and leadership opportunities in wheat science. The WIT Mentor Award recognizes the efforts of men and women who have positively shaped the careers of women working in wheat and demonstrated a commitment to increasing gender parity in agriculture.

Maricelis Acevedo, associate director for science for the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project (and herself a 2010 WIT winner), noted that this year’s awardees work across a multidisciplinary span of wheat science, from wheat breeding and pathology, to surveillance, data science and extension, with many disciplines in between.

“The future of wheat science — in fact, the future of the world itself — depends on the work of innovative, enthusiastic researchers,” Acevedo said.

This year’s early career awards went to Anna Backhaus (Germany); Bharati Pandey (India); Yewubdar Ishetu Shewaye (Ethiopia); Paula Silva (Uruguay); and Peipei Zhang (China). The WIT Mentor Award went to Evans Lagudah (Australia). The ceremony featured videos of all the winners speaking about their interest in wheat science and passion for food security issues.

Since 2010, the BGRI has honored 55 women scientists with early-career awards. The mentor award has gone to 10 individuals since it was established in 2011.

Sarah Evanega spoke about launching the WIT awards during her time leading the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project from 2008-2016. Evanega, who now leads the Cornell Alliance for Science, said she was so proud to see how each of the winners “has given back as mentors, as thought-leaders in gender in agriculture, as our nations’ top breeders, as mothers, as new faces leading agricultural science.”

Two former WIT winners  — Acevedo and Hale Ann Tufan (2010) — now lead major projects at Cornell. Tufan, co-director for the Gender-responsive Researchers Equipped for Agricultural Transformation (GREAT) program (which is jointly administered by Cornell and Makerere University in Uganda), moderated a panel discussion featuring former WIT winners about the future of wheat research, and the panelists’ aspirations and vision.

During the virtual celebration, Jeannie Borlaug Laube, chair of the BGRI and for whom the awards are named, described her father Norman E. Borlaug as “tenacious in his focus, bold in his ambition and tireless in his pursuit.” Her father’s mission was to deploy the tools of agriculture science to create a world free of hunger and poverty, according to Laube. His efforts launched the Green Revolution and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. He died in 2009 after spending his career mentoring young scientists and fighting to end hunger.

“My father would be very proud of you all,” she told the awardees. “If he were here, he would tell each of you that you are the future ‘hunger fighters’ who will be called upon to come up with solutions for global hunger and global food security.”

The BGRI is the secretariat for DGGW, an international initiative to improve wheat. DGGW is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK aid from the UK government.

Full recording of the event is available on the BGRI’s YouTube page.

Wheat expert calls for global unity to avert future hunger crises

Adapted from original blog by Matt Hayes on the website of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI)

Maricelis Acevedo (left), associate director of science for Delivering Genetic Gains in Wheat and Ronnie Coffman (right), international professor of plant breeding and director of International Programs in the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. (Photo: L. McCandless/Cornell) 

A global alliance of countries and research institutions committed to sharing plant genetic material , including the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and Cornell University, has secured food access for billions of people, but a patchwork of legal restrictions threatens humanity’s ability to feed a growing global population.

That jeopardizes decades of hard-won food security gains, according to Ronnie Coffman, international professor of plant breeding and director of International Programs in the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (IP-CALS).

“Global food security depends on the free movement and open sharing of plant genetic resources,” Coffman said July 23 at the International Wheat Congress in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. “Without a strong commitment to scientific exchange in support of global plant breeding efforts, we risk our ability to respond to current food crises and to protect future generations.”

Effective plant breeding programs depend on the exchange of seeds, pathogens, and plant genetic material – known as germplasm – between and among countries. Coordination among plant pathologists and breeders forms a symbiotic partnership as plant and disease specimens collected in countries around the world are sent to research institutions to be analyzed and tested. Those findings in turn inform the breeding of improved, location-specific crop varieties that are resistant to disease and adapted to increasingly unpredictable environmental conditions.

The Convention on Biological Diversity gives countries sovereign rights over their own biological resources. The multilateral treaty, signed in 1993, allows each state to draw up its own regulations. An update known as the Nagoya Protocol, ratified in 2014, has subjected plant breeders and the seed industry to increased legal wrangling. Some countries are particularly draconian in their enforcement, and without a universal legal framework, the uneven standards threaten to undermine scientific exchange, Coffman said.

He argued that current regulations bring international lawyers, accountants and bankers with little to no background in plant breeding onto the playing field of crop improvement to act as referees. The patchwork of laws and norms, which have grown increasingly complicated in recent years, hampers scientific advancement and ultimately harms the farmers who depend on improved crops.

Coffman called for an overhaul of international laws that regulate the sharing of plant genetic resources, and for plant scientists to advocate to protect the unimpeded exchange of material and knowledge.

“It takes an international community of scientists and genetic resources to fight pathogens like stem rust that do not respect international boundaries,” he said. “Stringent regulations and country-specific control are stifling the germplasm exchanges critical to agriculture and horticulture.”

The CGIAR system — and CIMMYT and ICARDA (International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas) in particular — are the conservators of enormous gene banks of germplasm. Those resources have been essential in improving many crops to fight biotic and abiotic stresses.

“Germplasm exchange and information sharing is paramount for global wheat improvement as they are the basis for much of the progress made,” said Hans Braun, director of CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat. “Going forward, we must protect open access and exchange because the value of germplasm resources in national and international gene banks can only be realized when they are shared and used.”

Hunger and malnutrition cause 9 million deaths globally per year, a number that could skyrocket without an international effort to respond in unison. Annual global losses to crops like wheat could be devastating in the absence of germplasm and effective breeding programs.

Since 2008, the Cornell-led Borlaug Global Rust Initiative has spearheaded efforts to combat threats to global wheat production. There are now approximately 215 million hectares of wheat under cultivation worldwide, most of it genetically susceptible to one or more races of newly identified stem rust and yellow rust pathogens. Highly virulent races of rust pathogens can easily reduce yields by 10% or more. The 1953 rust epidemic in North America resulted in average yield losses of 40% across U.S. and Canadian spring wheat growing areas.  

As one part of its efforts to reduce the world’s vulnerability to wheat diseases, the Cornell-led Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project – funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK Aid from the British people – collects samples of plant pathogens such as stem rust and yellow rust from 40 countries and analyzes them in biosafety testing labs in Minnesota, Denmark, Canada, Turkey, Ethiopia, Kenya and India.

Exchanging germplasm has allowed the DGGW project to take multiple approaches to achieving long-lasting resilience, from conventional breeding, to marker assisted selection and high-end basic science explorations. DGGW and its forerunner, the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project, have, since 2008, released more than 169 wheat varieties with increased yields and improved disease resistance in 11 at-risk countries, helping to improve smallholder farmers’ food security and livelihoods.

The DGGW relies on exchanges of germplasm and rust samples across international borders, and the project has encountered increased regulation in recent years, said Maricelis Acevedo, associate director of science for the DGGW and adjunct associate professor of plant pathology at Cornell.

“It takes an international community of scientists and genetic resources to fight pathogens like stem rust that know no international boundaries,” Acevedo said. “We must continue to protect — and use — those resources in our quest for global food security.”

Francisco Barro, developer of gluten-free wheat, to deliver keynote address at BGRI Technical Workshop

By Samantha Hautea
Thursday, March 29, 2018
(Courtesy of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative)

A few years ago, the idea of gluten-free wheat was more theoretical than real. But last year, Francisco Barro, a plant scientist at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Spain, made headlines with a gene editing technique called CRISPR-Cas9 that significantly reduced the amount of reaction-causing proteins in wheat.

Barro led the team that conducted the research leading to this remarkable achievement and was one of the authors of a paper that described engineering wheat using CRISPR.

Francisco Barro, photo provided.

As the keynote speaker for the 2018 Borlaug Global Rust Initiative Technical Workshop, in Morocco, April 14-17, Barro will talk about CRISPR-Cas9 technology, gluten-free wheat and the future of plant breeding.

“I am interested in the development of wheat lines suitable for celiac people, and obviously I am excited to carry out this project. For me, the elimination of the toxic gliadins and the maintenance of the bread making quality of wheat is the most exciting,” Barro said. “However, I realize that one of the most important targets for CRISPR is the resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses, in particular drought and salinity resistances, since this will allow sowing in soils not currently suitable for wheat cultivation, especially in developing countries.”

Born in Córdoba, Spain, Barro received his PhD in Biology at the University of Córdoba. After a postdoc of two-and-a-half years at Rothamsted Research in the UK, where he first worked on the genetic engineering of cereals, he returned to Spain to begin the research to obtain wheat lines for celiacs.

“The idea of obtaining wheat lines safe for celiac people came in 2002 when I was preparing a project to over-express gliadin genes in wheat, with the aim to extend wheat functionality,” Barro explained. “I changed the target of my research when I realized that people suffering celiac disease do not need more gliadins but the opposite instead. Therefore, I reorganized the project towards the elimination of gliadins by RNAi, which was a cutting edge technology by that time. We succeeded several years later with the development of wheat lines containing until 95 percent less gliadins than the standard wheat.”

Gliadins, a class of proteins found in gluten, are what cause immune reactions in people with celiac disease. The only known treatment for the disease is a strict gluten-free diet. While Barro’s research has not eliminated gliadins entirely from wheat, he is optimistic.

“More recently, we have applied the new gene editing technologies to introduce mutations in the alpha-gliadin regions of bread and durum wheat. The main advantage of these editing technologies is that the product does not contain transgenes and, therefore general consumers could more readily accept it. “

Barro said he was not surprised that there was such interest in his research from the popular press and the wheat science community.

“First, this a very hot topic, a very nice example of using biotechnology to help people. Everyone knows celiac people, and celiacs know that bread is a very difficult product, that gluten-free bread is not as good as other gluten-free products. I think that for a celiac to enjoy good bread, made of wheat, with the taste of wheat, the aroma of wheat, it would be something really amazing, and we are getting closer. Second, most papers report the use of gene editing technologies being limited to only a few genes. In our work, we report the simultaneous mutation of at least 35 different genes in bread wheat, and this is something really outstanding.”

One of the challenges with current gluten-free products is that they have a different flavor and texture. Barro’s team has collaborated with a baker in Spain to use their low-gliadin RNAi line of wheat to create bread with flavor and aroma indistinguishable from standard wheat bread. Celiac patients have been able to eat this bread and report on its quality.

Barro said his team has already designed new sgRNAs to target other gliadin groups in wheat, like gamma and omega gliadins. A number of companies have expressed interest in the technology and in using the material as it is or incorporating it into their breeding programs.

Is CRISPR the future of plant breeding?

From Barro’s perspective, it is unlikely that gene editing technologies will completely replace conventional plant breeding methods.

“Targets for CRISPR will be the same as those for classical breeding technologies, i.e., technologies are changing but the problems are the same: increasing yield, biotic and abiotic stresses resistant, better quality, etc. CRISPR technology provides breeders with more precise control of some features, but CRISPR technology will not replace classical breeding — they will work together.”

Speaking about future applications of CRISPR and other genome editing technologies in agriculture, Barro added that it is likely we will see some trends in applications.

“In the short-term, introducing mutations in key genes will be the most wide application of this technology, where the aim is to kill DNA, avoiding the expression of toxic proteins, or introducing mutations in genes to make crops more resistant to diseases, or genes which limit crop adaptability, and to develop androsterile plants for hybrid production. In the medium-term, CRISPR technology will be useful not for killing DNA but for real DNA editing: for gene replacement, or to modify specific amino acids and provide new functionalities to existent genes, and for transcriptional activation of repression of genes, modulating their expression levels.”

The 2018 BGRI Technical Workshop will be held in Marrakech, Morocco, from 14-17 April 2018. Click here to view the full program for the workshop at the BGRI website.

Breakthrough in the battle against Ug99

Melania Figuroa and Peter Dodds
Thursday, January 25, 2018 (Posted on the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative web page)

Wheat stem rust at important flag leaf stage. Photo by Robert Park

A significant breakthrough in combatting wheat stem rust disease caused by the fungus Puccinia graminis f. sp. tritici was recently achieved through the combined work of an international collaborative team, showing the power of cooperative research approaches.

The emergence of the Ug99 race of stem rust in Africa and the Middle East together with the appearance of new strains in Europe catalyzed a major effort to identify new sources of stem rust resistance and breed these genes into wheat lines. However, the continued emergence of stem rust variants that overcome new resistance genes, now demands an increased focus on pathogen evolution and virulence mechanisms.

Numerous stem rust resistance (Sr) genes are known and in recent years several of these have been cloned and used to develop so-called ‘perfect’ markers to allow more rapid and accurate breeding. These genes typically encode immune receptors that recognize specific protein components of the fungal pathogen to trigger resistance. However, the molecules recognized by these Sr genes have been unknown until now, hampering our understanding of how new strains of P. graminis f. sp. tritici evolve to escape plant recognition.

New insight into this evolution came from the identification of the protein, AvrSr50, which is recognized by the wheat Sr50 resistance gene, by  an international collaboration led by Dr. Peter Dodds (CSIRO Food and Agriculture and University of Minnesota Adjunct Professor) and Professor Robert Park (University of Sydney and Director of theAustralian Cereal Rust Control Program) and involving teams in the UK and the US.

Click here to read the full article.