Posts Tagged ‘John Innes Centre’

Dave Hodson highlights “major breakthroughs” in rust disease response at the 2020 Borlaug Global Rust Initiative Technical Workshop

By Madeline Dahm

Dave Hodson, principal scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), examined over a decade of progress from global partners in the battle to detect and respond to global wheat rust diseases at a keynote address at the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) Technical Workshop in early October.

International training participants learning to evaluate stem rust symptoms on wheat. Photo: Petr Kosina/CIMMYT.

Rust response in the 2000s: sounding the alarm

When the first signs of Ug99 – a deadly strain of wheat stem rust – were noticed in Uganda in 1998, farmers and researchers did not understand the full threat of this disease, or where it would travel next. After Nobel Prize-winning breeder Norman Borlaug sounded the alarm to world leaders, the BGRI was formed and stakeholders from around the world came together to discuss this quickly growing problem. They realized that first, they must develop effective monitoring and surveillance systems to track the pathogen.

Starting in 2008, the initial vision for the global rust monitoring system was developed and the first steps taken to build the global rust surveillance community. Expanding surveillance networks requires a strong database, increased capacity development and well-established national focal points. With standardized surveillance protocols, training and GPS units distributed to over 29 countries, data began to flow more efficiently into the system. This, combined with a preliminary study of the influence of wind and rainfall patterns, improved scientists’ ability to predict areas of higher risk. Furthermore, the group knew that it would be key to integrate race analysis data, expand access to information and eventually expand the system to include other rusts as well.

“Fast forward to today, and we’re now looking at one of the world’s largest international crop disease monitoring systems. We have over 39,000 geo-referenced survey records from >40 countries in the database now, and 9500+ rust isolate records,” said Hodson.

Implementation  of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) and Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) projects – predecessors to Accelerating Genetic Gains in Maize and Wheat for Improved Livelihoods (AGG)  – and other key projects advanced this surveillance system, providing early warnings of potential rust epidemics to scientists and farmers.

An important part of this success comes from the Global Rust Reference Center in Denmark, where scientists have put together a state-of-the-art data management system, known as the “Wheat Rust Toolbox,”; providing a flexible centralized database,  rapid data input from mobile devices, data export and a suite of database-driven display tools. The system is flexible enough to handle multiple crops and multiple diseases, including all three wheat rusts.  

A united front

Another critical element to this surveillance system is a global network of rust pathotyping labs around the world. 

“We currently have good surveillance coverage across the world, especially the developing country wheat-growing areas,” says Hodson. “Coupling sampling from that survey network to these labs have enabled us to track the pathogen.”

This is particularly important in the face of a rapidly mutating pathogen. Not only are new variants of Ug99 appearing and spreading, but also other important new races of stem rust are being detected and spreading in places as far-flung as Sicily, Sweden, Siberia, Ecuador, Ethiopia and Georgia. In many regions, we are seeing a re-emergence of stem rust as a disease of concern.

“We now know there are 14 races of Ug99 confirmed across 13 countries. We have seen increased virulence of the pathogen, it  is mutating and migrating, and [has] spread over large distances.”

Furthermore, yellow rust has emerged as a disease of major global importance. The spread of yellow rust and appearance of highly virulent new races seems to be increasing over time. Several regions are now experiencing large-scale outbreaks as a result of the incursion of new races. For example, in South America, causing one of the largest outbreaks in 30 years.

Major breakthroughs in prediction and surveillance

Despite the increased spread and virulence of wheat rusts, the global community of partners has made serious advances in prediction, tracking and treatment of pathogens.

The University of Cambridge and the UK Met Office have developed advanced spore dispersal and epidemiological models for wheat rusts, resulting in a major leap forward in terms of understanding rust movements and providing a foundation for operational, in-season early warning systems. Operational, early warning is already a reality in Ethiopia and similar systems are now being tested in South Asia.

“These models are actually able to predict many of the movements we are now seeing globally,” says Hodson.

“In Ethiopia, information is going out to partners in weekly advisories, as well as targeted SMS alerts using the 8028 farmer hotline developed by the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), with over 4 million subscribers. It makes it possible to get ahead of the disease in key areas–a major breakthrough,” he said, noting plans underway to expand the system to more countries.

In addition, innovative diagnostics such as  the award-winning MARPLE rapid, field-based diagnostic tool developed with the John Innes Centre and Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), are transforming the time it takes to detect potentially damaging new races. Resulting in more opportunities for early warning and timely, effective control responses.

The future of wheat research and disease management 

“Clearly, we’re going to need more multidisciplinary approaches to combat these increasing threats from transboundary diseases,” he says, though very optimistic for the future of wheat rust disease forecasting, early warning systems and diagnostics.

Thanks to a “truly fantastic” global community of partners and donors, the global scientific community has built one of the world’s largest crop disease monitoring systems to track and combat aggressive, rapidly spreading wheat rust diseases. Its continued success will depend on embracing state of the art technology – from molecular diagnostics to artificial intelligence – and developing a plan for long-term sustainability.


Seed vaults, field experiments and being evacuated; a PhD adventure

This blog was originally posted on the website of the John Innes Centre.

Last month we were proud to announce that PhD student Anna Backhaus, was the recipient of a prestigious Women in Triticum (WIT) award.

Here, Anna reflects on the award and an interrupted but still memorable trip to Mexico – and offers some advice for colleagues.

“In March I departed Norwich Airport expecting to spend the next month in Mexico. I had sown all my seeds at the John Innes Centre, cleaned my desk and handed over my beloved houseplants to friends. As part of receiving this year’s Women in Triticum (WIT) award we were invited to visit the international centre for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT) in Obregon Ciudad.

However, two weeks later I found myself living back home in my mother’s house, cooking wonky tortillas for dinner, a trip cut short by Covid-19. Despite the abrupt end of the trip, I’d had a wonderful journey.

The first days of the trip were spent in the CIMMYT headquarters, near Mexico City. Our group was Amor Yahyaoui, who was leading the training program and the other WIT awardees of 2019/20: Fiktre and Yewubdar from Ethiopia, Ritika from India, Valentina who just started her Post-doc in Canada and Dalma from Chile.

One of the highlights of the trip was that we spent so much time together as WITs and thus made great new friendships (possibly the slightly mad ending and evacuation out of Mexico also helped us to bond).

Upon our arrival, we immediately started with what we came for; the science, and joined the ongoing conference on insect pests.

We also got a tour of the centre’s facilities; my personal highlight was, of course, the cold vaults where the germplasm collection is stored. The vaults hold the seeds collected over many years in all regions of the world. The seeds and grains are valuable as they are used in today’s pre-breeding programs to introduce new genetic material and improve agronomic traits.

We got to see this pre-breeding material a few days later when we arrived in the field station 1,500 km north of Mexico City. In the field we talked with many CIMMYT scientists and got to see a snapshot of their work.

We also did some hands-on training, such as crossing wheat varieties, scoring of diseases or washing roots with high pressure hoses (for logging experiments). At the Obregon CIMMYT camp station we were also joined by another WIT awardee, Carolina, who works in the Physiology department of the centre.

I must say a huge thank you to everyone at CIMMYT, especially to Carolina and her colleagues from physiology as well as Karim Anmar, head of the Durum program, for making our two-week stay at CIMMYT so fantastic.

Most of the usual visitor’s program for WITs had been cancelled due to Covid-19 and much of our day-to-day program had to be improvised. They all made a huge effort and went out of their way to introduce us to CIMMYT, take us to the fields, explain their work to us and, of course, show us life in Obregon. I am looking forward to seeing them all again at future wheat(y) meetings.

The Women in Triticum is awarded yearly to early career scientists by the BGRI (Borlaug Global Rust Initiative) to continue the legacy of the pioneering agronomist Dr Norman Borlaug. The award is supported by Jeanie Borlaug, daughter of the Nobel peace prize laureate.

I think the award is so relevant as institutes, conferences, and especially (senior positions) around the globe are still male dominated. The opportunities, such as visiting CIMMYT and attending the bi-annual BGRI meeting, that come with the award are great opportunities and I would encourage everyone to apply (and not only once, some of us applied five or more times)”.

Anna’s PhD is funded by the John Innes Foundation. She is a second-year student supervised by Professor Cristobal Uauy and Professor Richard Morris.

MARPLE team awarded for international impact

Research team behind a revolutionary field test for wheat disease wins prestigious BBSRC prize

International Impact winners Diane Saunders and Dave Hodson with Malcolm Skingle, director of Academic Liaison, GlaxoSmithKline and Melanie Welham, executive chair of BBSRC. Photo ©BBSRC

The research team behind the MARPLE (Mobile And Real-time PLant disEase) diagnostic kit won the international impact category of the annual Innovator of the Year Awards sponsored by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The team — Diane Saunders of the John Innes Centre (JIC), Dave Hodson of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and Tadessa Daba of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) — was presented with the award at a high-profile event at the London Science Museum on 15 May 2019 before an audience of leading figures from the worlds of investment, industry, government, charity and academia, including Chris Skidmore MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation.

The BBSRC Innovator of the Year awards, now in their 11th year, recognize and support individuals or teams who have taken discoveries in bioscience and translated them to deliver impact. Reflecting the breadth of research that BBSRC supports, they are awarded in four categories of impact: commercial, societal, international and early career.

Diane Saunders of John Innes Centre and Dave Hodson of CIMMYT pose with the MARPLE diagnostics kit. Credit: JIC

As finalists in the international impact category, Saunders, Hodson and Daba were among a select group of 12 finalists competing for the prestigious Innovator of the Year 2019 award. In addition to international recognition, they received a £10,000 award.

“I am delighted that this work has been recognized,” said Hodson. “Wheat rusts are a global threat to agriculture, and to the livelihoods of farmers in developing countries such as Ethiopia. MARPLE diagnostics puts state of the art, rapid diagnostic results in the hands of those best placed to respond: researchers on the ground, local government and farmers.”

MARPLE diagnostics is the first operational system in the world using nanopore sequence technology for rapid diagnostics and surveillance of complex fungal pathogens in the field.

In its initial work in Ethiopia, the suitcase-sized field test kit has positioned the country, among the region’s top wheat producers, as a world leader in pathogen diagnostics and forecasting. Generating results within 48 hours of field sampling, the kit represents a revolution in plant disease diagnostics with far-reaching implications for how plant health threats are identified and tracked into the future.

The MARPLE mobile lab in Ethiopia. Credit: JIC

MARPLE is designed to run at a field site without constant electricity and with the varying temperatures of the field.

“This means we can truly take the lab to the field,” explained Saunders. “Perhaps more importantly though, it means that smaller, less resourced labs can drive their own research without having to rely on a handful of large, well-resourced labs and sophisticated expertise in different countries.”

In a recent interview with JIC, EIAR Director Tadessa Daba said, “We want to see this project being used on the ground, to show farmers and the nation this technology works.”



Development of the MARPLE diagnostic kit was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture Inspire Challenge. Continued support is also provided by the BBSRC Excellence with Impact Award to the John Innes Centre and the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat project led by Cornell University International Programs that is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

More information on the JIC-CIMMYT-EIAR team’s BBSRC recognition can be found on the JIC website, the BBSRC website and the website of the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat.

Q&A with Dave Hodson on MARPLE and Big Data

CIMMYT’s Dave Hodson taking wheat rust samples with Ethiopian farmers. Photo credit: John Innes Centre

The MARPLE (Mobile And Real-time PLant disease) project – a project to test and pilot a revolutionary mobile lab in Ethiopia, led by the John Innes Centre, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR)—won the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture Inspire Challenge Scale Up award in 2018.

The Inspire Challenge encourages CGIAR partners, universities and others to use big data approaches through innovative pilot projects to advance agricultural research and development. To be named a winner, projects must have real potential for developmental impact, have mobilized underused or misused data, and demonstrate meaningful partnerships with CGIAR and other sector members. Ultimately, the Inspire Challenge looks for novel approaches to inform policies and applications in agriculture and food security.

We sat down with CIMMYT Principal Scientist and rust pathologist Dave Hodson to ask him about the project and its relationship with Big Data for Agriculture.

What is the significance of Big Data to your work?
Advances in sequencing technology, and the use of innovative big data approaches on sequence data from thousands of yellow rust isolates, opened the door for Diane Saunders and colleagues at the John Innes Centre in the UK to develop revolutionary, near-real time, mobile pathogen diagnostic techniques using portable palm-sized gene sequencers. The final result being the first operational system in the world using nanopore sequence technology for rapid diagnostics and surveillance of complex fungal pathogens in situ.

How do you see the role of the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture in your work?
Support from the CGIAR Big Data Platform was critical to establish the partnership between John Innes, the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and CIMMYT and enable piloting and testing of the new MARPLE diagnostic platform in Ethiopia. The choice of Ethiopia to be the first country for initial testing was based on several key factors. Firstly, a strong national partner in EIAR; secondly, the critical importance of wheat and wheat rust diseases in the country. Ethiopia is the largest wheat producer in sub-Saharan Africa, but it is also considered the gateway for new wheat rust strains entering into Africa from Asia. All these factors made Ethiopia the highest priority country to take the lead in testing this revolutionary new and rapid pathogen diagnostics platform.

How did it impact this MARPLE project?
The pilot and subsequent scale-up project from the CGIAR Big Data Platform has enabled in-country capacity to be developed, and cutting edge technology for rapid pathogen diagnostics to be deployed in the front-line in the battle against devastating wheat rust diseases. The scientific innovation in developing the MARPLE platform, coupled to the suitability of the technology for developing country partners has now attracted support and interest from other donors. Matching funds were recently obtained for the scale -up phase of MARPLE from the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat project (implemented by Cornell University and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development). This scale-up phase of the project will see a set of distributed MARPLE hubs established and embedded within the Ethiopian wheat research system – resulting in a sentinel system for the rapid detection of new yellow rust races that is unparalleled anywhere in the world. The scientific breakthrough in developing rapid diagnostics for complex fungal pathogens using nanopore sequencing will permit the development of similar systems for other important fungal diseases in the future.

The MARPLE project was selected as a 2017 winner, with the team receiving 100,000 USD to put their ideas into practice. The team came runners up for the Scale Up award the following year, receiving an additional USD 125,000 for their outstanding ability to demonstrate the project’s proven viability and potential for impact.

Mutating diseases drive wheat variety turnover in Ethiopia, new study shows

Yellow spores of the fungus Puccinia striiformis f.sp. tritici, which causes stripe rust disease in wheat. Photo: CIMMYT/Mike Listman.

By Mike Listman

Rapidly emerging and evolving races of wheat stem rust and stripe rust disease—the crop’s deadliest scourges worldwide—drove large-scale seed replacement by Ethiopia’s farmers during 2009-14, as the genetic resistance of widely-grown wheat varieties no longer proved effective against the novel pathogen strains, according to a new study by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

Based on two surveys conducted by CIMMYT and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and involving more than 2,000 Ethiopian wheat farmers, the study shows that farmers need access to a range of genetically diverse wheat varieties whose resistance is based on multiple genes.

After a severe outbreak in 2010-11 of a previously unseen stripe rust strain, 40 percent of the affected farm households quickly replaced popular but susceptible wheat varieties, according to Moti Jaleta, agricultural economist at CIMMYT and co-author of the publication.

“That epidemic hit about 600,000 hectares of wheat—30 percent of Ethiopia’s wheat lands—and farmers said it cut their yields in half,” Jaleta said. “In general, the rapid appearance and mutation of wheat rust races in Ethiopia has convinced farmers about the need to adopt newer, resistant varieties.”

The fourth most widely grown cereal after tef, maize, and sorghum, wheat in Ethiopia is produced largely by smallholder farmers under rainfed conditions. Wheat production and area under cultivation have increased significantly in the last decade and Ethiopia is among Africa’s top three wheat producers, but the country still imports on average 1.4 million tons of wheat per year to meet domestic demand.

National and international organizations such as EIAR, CIMMYT, and the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) are working intensely to identify and incorporate new sources of disease resistance into improved wheat varieties and to support the multiplication of more seed to meet farmer demand.

New wheat varieties have provided bigger harvests and incomes for Ethiopia farmers in the last decade, but swiftly mutating and spreading disease strains are endangering wheat’s future, according to Dave Hodson, CIMMYT expert in geographic information and decision support systems, co-author of the new study.

Ethiopian wheat farmers like Abebe Abora, of Doyogena, have benefitted from adopting high-yielding wheat varieties but face threats from fast mutating races of wheat rust disease pathogens. Photo: CIMMYT/Apollo Habtamu.

Ethiopian wheat farmers like Abebe Abora, of Doyogena, have benefitted from adopting high-yielding wheat varieties but face threats from fast mutating races of wheat rust disease pathogens. Photo: CIMMYT/Apollo Habtamu.

“In addition to stripe rust, highly-virulent new races of stem rust are ruining wheat harvests in eastern Africa,” he explained. “These include the deadly Ug99 race group, which has spread beyond the region, and, more recently, the stem rust race TKTTF.”

As an example, he mentioned the case of the wheat variety Digalu, which is resistant to stripe rust and was quickly adopted by farmers after the 2010-11 epidemic. But Digalu has recently shown susceptibility to TKTTF stem rust and must now be replaced.

“In rust-prone Ethiopia, the risks of over-reliance on a widely-sown variety that is protected by a single, major resistance gene—Digalu, for example—are clearly apparent,” he added. “CIMMYT and partners are working hard to replace it with a new variety whose resistance is genetically more complex and durable.”

Hodson said as well that continuous monitoring of the rust populations in Ethiopia and the surrounding region is essential to detect and respond to emerging threats, as well as to ensure that the key pathogen races are used to screen for resistance in wheat breeding programs.

Hodson and partners at the John Innes Centre, UK, and EIAR are leading development of a handheld tool that allows rapid identification of disease strains in the field, instead of having to send them to a laboratory and lose precious time awaiting the results.

CIMMYT and partners are also applying molecular tools to study wheat varietal use in Ethiopia. “There are indications that yields reported by farmers were much lower than official statistics, and farmer recollections of varietal names and other information are not always exact,” Hodson explained. “We are analyzing results now of a follow-up study that uses DNA fingerprinting to better document varietal use and turnover.”

The authors would like to acknowledge the Standing Panel for Impact Assessment (SPIA) for financing, the Diffusion and Impacts of Improved Varieties in Africa (DIIVA) project that supported the first survey in 2011, and Cornell Universitythe Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) through the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW, now called Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat) project for support for the second survey in 2014.

Deadly strain of wheat stem rust disease surfaces in Europe

Scientists have shown that the first appearance of wheat stem rust disease in the U.K. in nearly 60 years, which occurred in 2013, was caused by the same virulent fungal strain responsible for recent wheat stem rust outbreaks in Ethiopia, Denmark, Germany, and Sweden.

Wheat stem rust was reported by the Greeks and Romans, and the latter sacrificed to the gods to avoid disease outbreaks on their wheat crops. Photo: CIMMYT/Petr Kosina

Wheat stem rust was reported by the Greeks and Romans, and the latter sacrificed
to the gods to avoid disease outbreaks on their wheat crops.
Photo: CIMMYT/Petr Kosina

As reported today in Communications Biology, an international team of researchers led by the John Innes Centre, U.K., found that 80 percent of U.K. wheat varieties are susceptible to the deadly stem rust strain. The group also confirmed for the first time in many decades that the stem rust fungus was growing on barberry bush, the pathogen’s alternate host, in the UK.

“This signals the rising threat of stem rust disease for wheat and barley production in Europe,” said Dave Hodson, senior scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and co-author on the study.

A scourge of wheat since biblical times, stem rust caused major losses to North American wheat crops in the early 20th century. Stem rust disease was controlled for decades through the use of resistant wheat varieties bred in the 1950s by scientist Norman Borlaug and his colleagues. Widespread adoption of those varieties sparked the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s.

In 1999 a new, highly-virulent strain of the stem rust fungus emerged in eastern Africa. Spores of that strain and variants have spread rapidly and are threatening or overcoming the genetic resistance of many currently sown wheat varieties. Scientists worldwide joined forces in the early 2000s to develop new, resistant varieties and to monitor and control outbreaks of stem rust and yellow rust, as part of collaborations such as the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative led by Cornell University.

Barberry is a shrub found throughout the temperate and subtropical regions. Photo: CIMMYT archives

Barberry is a shrub found throughout
the temperate and subtropical regions.
Photo: John Innes Centre

The Communications Biology study shows that 2013 U.K. stem rust strain is related to TKTTF, a fungal race first detected in Turkey that spread across the Middle East and recently into Europe. It was the dominant race in the 2013 stem rust outbreak in Germany and infected 10,000 hectares of wheat in Ethiopia’s breadbasket the same year.

Because disease organisms mutate quickly to overcome crop resistance controlled by single genes, researchers are rushing to identify new resistance genes and to incorporate multiple genes into high-yielding varieties, according to Ravi Singh, CIMMYT wheat scientist who participated in the reported study.

“The greatest hope for achieving durable resistance to rust diseases is to make wheat’s resistance genetically complex, combining several genes and resistance mechanisms,” Singh explained.

Barberry, which serves as a spawning ground for the stem rust fungus, was largely eradicated from the U.K. and U.S. last century, greatly reducing the spread and genetic diversification of rust disease races. Now barberry is being grown again in the U.K. over the last decade, according to Diane G.O. Saunders, John Innes Centre scientist and co-author of the study.

“The late Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug said that the greatest ally of the pathogen is our short memory,” Saunders stated. “We recommend continued, intensive resistance breeding. We would also welcome work with conservationists of endangered, barberry-dependent insect species to ensure that planting of common barberry occurs away from arable land, thus safeguarding European cereals from a large-scale re-emergence of wheat stem rust.”

Click here to read the John Innes Centre media release about the Communications Biology report and view the report.