Project to Prevent Wheat Rust Fungus from Infecting US Crops

In the past seven years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded Kansas State University $6.5 million to keep a wheat fungus that has had a devastating impact on wheat production in South America out of the United States. So far, mission accomplished. But the university's Barbara Valent, Ph.D., who has led a project that includes field and laboratory trials in four countries, concedes that good science has combined with a little bit of luck to keep wheat blast, which is caused by the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae, from infecting U.S. fields. Dr. Valent, a University Distinguished Professor of Plant Pathology, said that the fungus thrives in warm, wet environments like those found in Bolivia and Brazil, where growers have struggled with the disease for more than two decades. Those conditions came together in Kentucky in 2011, however, when a single wheat head was infected with wheat blast. It's the only known incident of the fungus being found in a U.S. wheat crop, and a very clear warning that the country's farm fields aren't safe from the threat. "What we do know is that the Kentucky fungus was not imported from South America; it's a native strain," Dr. Valent said. "We have this turfgrass disease called gray leaf spot that's caused by the same fungus, although it's a different host-adapted form of the fungus. This turfgrass pathogen is very closely related to the wheat blast strains in South America. A good percentage of the turfgrass strains are capable of infecting wheat, but the climate in the U.S. is just not quite right during the wheat growing season." Dr. Valent and her colleagues are studying the disease at the Biosecurity Research Institute, a biosafety-level-3 and biosafety-level-3-ag facility in Pat Roberts Hall at Kansas State University.
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