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Cornell leads global meetings in Russia to save wheat

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- As key Cornell researchers seek solutions to control a new variety of wheat rust that threatens global food supplies, it was fitting that the world's largest gathering of wheat researchers this week in St. Petersburg, Russia, includes four Cornellians.

William R. Coffman, professor of plant breeding, vice-chair of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) and director of Cornell's Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project; Mark Sorrells, plant breeding professor and director of Cornell's Small Grains Breeding Program; Jessica Rutkoski, a first-year graduate student in plant breeding and genetics; and Long Xi Yu, a plant breeding research associate, are participating in the 2010 BGRI Workshop and the Eighth International Wheat Conference, May 30-June 4.

Dubbed "hunger fighters" by the late Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, 600 researchers from more than 77 countries have gathered to discuss securing global food supplies, developing resistance to aggressive wheat pathogens that have the potential to wreak havoc with the world's wheat supply, and sustaining long-term plant breeding efforts despite funding shortages.

The call to action was prompted by stem rust, a virulent plant disease that has already slashed wheat production in Ethiopia and Kenya by 80 percent, is moving toward Egypt, Kenya, Yemen and Iran, and is headed for the world's breadbasket in India and Bangladesh.

"Wheat provides nearly 55 percent of the carbohydrates and 20 percent of the food calories consumed globally," said Coffman. He estimates that 90 percent of all wheat varieties are susceptible to Ug99, the new variant of stem rust that is mutating faster than scientists can develop varieties to resist its invasion.

"Most often, plant breeders talk about it like it is an arms race," said Rutkoski, one of the winners of the 2010 Women in Triticum awards at the conference (see related story "The pathogen comes up with a new gene to overcome the plant's resistance. Plant breeders come up with a new combination of genes to overcome the pathogen, and so on it goes."

Sorrells, Rutkoski and Yu are involved in molecular screening for the major and minor genes that confer rust resistance. Sorrells reported on his lab's progress at the BGRI meeting (May 30-31), prior to the main conference.

Also at the meeting, researchers warned that in spite of significant gains to organize farmers against the deadly fungus through such new technologies as Global Positioning Systems and web-visualization mapping, "incentives may be needed for farmers to grow resistant varieties in developing countries," Coffman said.

Ethiopia and Kenya, which have been the epicenter for infection, are developing and maintaining stem rust testing and screening facilities essential in the race to develop resistant varieties, Coffman said. Some resistant varieties have been developed and are growing in Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Nepal, Egypt, Bangladesh and Pakistan; a surplus of rust resistant wheat seed is projected in Iran and Egypt in 2011, though the virus continues to mutate and overcome resistance, he added. Finding new funding sources also remains a challenge, Coffman added.

The meetings were organized by the BGRI, a group led by, among others, Cornell, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, the Syria-based International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

Linda McCandless is director of communications for CALS.

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