The United States Department of Agriculture has awarded a grant worth over £500,000 to a joint US/UK research project that could help farmers overcome wheat rust diseases. Charlotte Cunningham reports.

The 2Blades Foundation and collaborators at the University of Minnesota, Kansas State University as well as the the John Innes Center will study wild emmer wheat to discover genes that can help farmers combat devastating wheat rust diseases which are estimated to cost farmers and consumers nearly $3 billion each year.

The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture has awarded a grant through their Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) for the study of emmer wheat – one of the very first cereals to be cultivated in agriculture – to identify genes that could help make wheat resistant to “rust” diseases.  

The current project builds on 2Blades’ 12-year effort to source resistance genes from wheat and its domesticated and wild relatives, and to deploy them in finished wheat varieties. It brings together leading scientists in wheat and wheat rusts with key resources.

Team of experts

The project team includes: Jesse Poland, a wheat geneticist at Kansas State University’s Wheat Genetics Resource Center, which maintains extensive collections of wild wheat relatives including wild emmer wheat; Brian Steffenson, a plant pathologist at the University of Minnesota, with extensive expertise in cereal rusts and specialised facilities for conducting resistance assays; and Brande Wulff, from the John Innes Centre in the United Kingdom, who has developed the methodology to quickly identify resistance genes through association genetics.

“In the face of this threat to world food security we are working with our partners in the United States, England, Australia and Japan to develop new wheat lines which are completely and securely disease resistant, and to ensure that these lines are available to farmers everywhere, and freely available to farmers throughout the developing world,” says 2Blades Chairman Roger Freedman.