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Scientists share strategy at conference to halt migratory wheat disease

Wheat scientists visit Washington to receive honor, detail research successes at American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting.

Simon N'gang'a, a wheat farmer in Kenya's Njoro region, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) northwest of the country's capital Nairobi. N'gang'a's crop was lost to a sister strain of Ug99 stem rust disease in 2014. CIMMYT/Julie Mollins
Simon N’gang’a, a wheat farmer in Kenya’s Njoro region, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) northwest of the country’s capital Nairobi. N’gang’a’s crop was lost to a sister strain of Ug99 stem rust disease in 2014. CIMMYT/Julie Mollins

WASHINGTON, D.C. (CIMMYT) – Scientist Ravi Singh is in Washington this week to officially become a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for “distinguished contributions to the field of agricultural research and development, particularly in wheat genetics, pathology and breeding.”

Singh, who leads wheat improvement and rust disease resistance research at the Mexico-based International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT), is among almost 350 members awarded the honor this year by the scientific organization AAAS, which also publishes the journal “Science.”

The ceremony for the new fellows, honored as a result of scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications, will be held on Saturday to coincide with the AAAS annual meeting.

Additionally, two CIMMYT scientists will speak at an AAAS session on Sunday titled “Pathogens Without Borders.” The session will highlight the work of David Hodson and Jessica Rutkoski, like Singh, researchers in the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project – part of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative at Cornell University.


The work of the scientists is aimed at reducing the world’s vulnerability to stem rust diseases of wheat, which cost almost $3 billion in crop losses a year. In particular, they fight the swift-moving, devastating Ug99 stem rust disease, which chokes nutrients in the wheat stem and reduces grain to useless papery chaff.

Since 1998, Ug99 has been sweeping its way across Africa to the Middle East from its origin in Uganda. Altogether, 11 confirmed races in the Ug99 lineage have been detected in Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iran, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Yemen and Zimbabwe, showing that the pathogen has evolved and expanded widely, according to recent research by Singh, Hodson and collaborators.

Trans-boundary pathogens blown by the wind, spread by travel and commercial trade, pose an increasing threat to global food security. Emerging strains colonizing new areas can cause significant crop losses. Pathogen changes in one region can quickly migrate with serious consequences to more distant regions.


Senior scientist Hodson, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, will lead a discussion titled “Building Plant Pathogen Surveillance Networks in Sub-Saharan Africa.” The session explores methods deployed to orchestrate coordinated surveillance, including early detection and control methods of new emerging crop disease threats across large geographic regions. Hodson will discuss the web-based “Rust Tracker”, which covers all major wheat growing countries in Africa, Middle East and South Asia.

He will explore how the participation of a large number of multi-disciplinary partners under the umbrella of the BGRI has been critical for gains made against the disease. The presentation will also look at how stem rust has spurred new surveillance systems that are being applied to other important trans-boundary diseases.


Rutkoski, adjunct wheat breeder and quantitative geneticist at CIMMYT and assistant professor at Cornell University, will lead a discussion titled “Using Big Data and Global Partnerships to Accelerate Rates of Genetic Gain in Wheat Building Plant Pathogen Surveillance Networks in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

The discussion will explore the challenges and potential solutions to the flow of pathogens across borders. She will examine how to harness DNA marker data, data on disease resistance, grain yield and aerially collected phenotypes from cooperators at various sites to develop prediction models that can identify the highest yielding and most resistant wheat lines in a range of environments. When applied in breeding, these prediction models can accelerate the rate of genetic improvement.

Rutkoski will also reveal some of the challenges to full implementation of new data-driven approaches in crop improvement, including data management, data sharing and cultural changes in relation to research and crop breeding.


A third speaker involved in the BGRI project, Maricelis Acevedo, assistant professor and wheat rust pathologist at North Dakota State University, will also speak at the same session, leading a discussion titled “Field Nurseries in East Africa: Promoting International Collaborations and Training.”

She will speak from her experience working at the nurseries, which were founded by Norman Borlaug, the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former head of wheat breeding at CIMMYT, and currently managed by CIMMYT’s Sridhar Bhavani.

Acevedo will discuss disease resistance and yield protection to achieve food security, covering research methods, international collaborations and agriculture scientist training. Research results from the international nurseries demonstrate that greater advances can occur when scientific communities across disciplines and institutions work as a cohesive unit instead of as individuals.

Wheat currently provides 20 percent of calories and 20 percent of protein to the global human diet.

By 2050, the current global population of 7.3 billion is projected to grow 33 percent to 9.7 billion, according to the United Nations. Demand for food, driven by population, demographic changes and increasing global wealth will rise more than 60 percent, according to a recent report from the Taskforce on Extreme Weather and Global Food System Resilience, making research efforts to protect the crop vital.