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Alan Roelfs visits CIMMYT to teach about rust

CIMMYT-El Batán had the privilege to host Alan Roelfs, an expert on rust research, as a visitor to the wheat program. Roelfs assisted with training as part of the “Advanced Wheat Improvement Course: Pathology Module” during 25 July – 15 August 2012. “Alan Roelfs equals rust,” said CIMMYT wheat pathologist Amor Yahyaoui, summarizing the significance of Roelfs’ expertise and fame.

Roelfs began working on wheat leaf rust as research aide for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) at Kansas State University, and later transferred to the Cooperative Rust Lab in Minnesota. At USDA he studied stem rust resistance, helped to modernize the stem rust race survey, and monitored spore and disease movement from Mexico to Canada. Roelfs first visited CIMMYT while at Minnesota. “CIMMYT was very different. The wheat and corn programs are now more blended,” he said about his first experiences in Mexico. Roelfs commended the role of CIMMYT in helping Mexico achieve self-sufficiency in wheat production: “Back then it was about improving the crop or not eating.”

A part of Roelfs’ work in Mexico was to track diseases and compare them to CIMMYT’s collection. “Field monitoring of leaf and stem rust populations was significantly different from what it is now,” says Roelfs. “Rust research is also now more like playing with genetics―trying to find out how to turn a trait on or off, depending on what we need it to do.”

Roelfs has visited CIMMYT frequently to attend scientific meetings or offer information on rust lines, and played a key role in the beginning of rust research at CIMMYT. For training, he draws on his vast experience with students with different abilities and backgrounds: “CIMMYT trainings are a very challenging task from the instructor’s perspective because the group is very diverse. There are people with PhD degrees and little field experience, along with people with purely practical experience. Furthermore, there are language barriers, as participants come from different countries.”

Besides training and scientific meetings, Roelfs is also working with CIMMYT scientists on a new edition of Rust Diseases of Wheat: Concepts and Methods of Disease Management, which was first published by CIMMYT in 1992. The new edition will include discoveries from the last 20 years.