Global effort to tackle wheat’s worst enemy

23rd Nov 2012

An international team led by Norwich Research Park scientists have been awarded a grant to tackle one of wheat’s worst enemies, yellow rust.

This is part of a unique £16M initiative, involving 40 international research organisations, which will harness bioscience to improve food security in developing countries.

The grants have been awarded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) under the Sustainable Crop Production Research for International Development (SCPRID) programme, a joint multi-national initiative of BBSRC and the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID), together with (through a grant awarded to BBSRC) the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) of India’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

Wheat is a staple crop across most of the developing world and globally provides about 20 per cent of the calories and proteins consumed by humans each day.

Wheat production needs to increase dramatically in coming years to meet the needs of a rapidly growing world population, but disease is a continuing threat to current and future yields. One of wheat’s worst enemies is ‘wheat yellow rust,’ a disease responsible for yield losses of up to 70 percent or complete crop loss if the disease occurs early in the growing season.

To overcome the devastating economic and environmental impact of yellow rust, breeders and scientists have developed wheat varieties resistant to the disease, but a general lack of understanding about how the yellow rust pathogen overcomes the plant’s resistance means that new varieties have not stayed resistant for long. This five-year project aims to tackle this.

The project is led by Dr Cristobal Uauy of the John Innes Centre, working with Dr Brande Wulff at the Sainsbury Laboratory and Dr Shawn McGuire from the University of East Anglia. The Genome Analysis Centre, also part of the Norwich Research Park, will carry out much of the sequencing. The consortium of researchers also includes scientists from Ethiopia, India, Kenya and Denmark, as well as the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB).

Using new DNA sequencing technologies and a variety of strains of wheat yellow rust from Africa, India and the UK, the researchers will sequence current and historical collections of yellow rust to understand how the disease has evolved over time and across continents. This new information at a DNA level will help identify wheat genes best able to resist the pathogen for longer, enabling new varieties of yellow rust resistant wheat to be bred, grown and harvested. Dr McGuire’s work will focus on the institutional challenges of linking disciplines and research groups in developing-country plant science.

Funding has been awarded to 11 new research projects under the SCPRID programme which will develop ways to improve the sustainability of vital food crops in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. The projects aim to develop staple crops better able to resist pests or thrive in harsh environmental conditions.

Food security is a major issue with over one billion people across the world already undernourished and the global population forecast to reach nine billion by 2050. These new research projects are expected to increase sustainable crop yields for farmers and their local communities within the next 5 to 10 years and the knowledge and skills developed as part of these projects will be beneficial for crop production globally.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “One billion people currently go to bed hungry every night. By 2050 there will be another two billion mouths to feed. And experts predict the world will need to be able to grow 70 per cent more food.

“The UK’s world class bioscience sector is dedicating vital knowledge and expertise to tackling this global problem. This investment will bring together experts at 14 British Universities and Institutes who will work with famers in Africa and Asia to develop crops that are resistant to disease, pests and drought.

“Farmers need these innovations to protect their own livelihoods and the health of their communities.”

Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, said: “This global collaboration will build on the UK’s world leading position in bioscience and will benefit millions of people through improving food security in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. It will help us share knowledge and forge closer links with the international research community, whilst improving skills and creating jobs in the UK.”

Lynne Featherstone, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, said: “Staple crops are essential to millions of farmers across Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, both for food and income. All too often, environmental conditions and pests cause serious crop failure, with devastating consequences for individual farmers, their families and their communities.

“Producing crops better able to grow in harsh conditions will not only tackle malnutrition, but also increase the chances for families to earn an income in order to afford education and health care, which is why DFID is providing funding to this potentially life-saving initiative.”

Sam Dryden, Director of Agricultural Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, commented: “Many small farmers in the developing world cannot grow enough food to eat, let alone sell. Innovation in agriculture is vital to resolve this and we hope these projects will sustainably improve agricultural productivity, build skills and resources in developing countries, and ultimately help farming families build better lives.”

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: “Providing safe, affordable and nutritious food for everyone is one of the greatest challenges we face. This ground-breaking international partnership, of funders and scientists, will ensure that cutting- edge, fundamental bioscience is combined with vital local knowledge to develop sustainable, affordable solutions to increase crop yields and improve global food security.”

The new initiative is being coordinated by BBSRC. The £16M is made up of £3M from BBSRC, £5M from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (through a grant to BBSRC) and £7M from DFID. A further £1M has been provided by the DBT of India’s Ministry of Science and Technology for projects involving India.

Each project includes at least one partner from the UK and one from a developing nation. This approach, used by BBSRC and DFID in previous programmes, aims to build scientific capacity in developing countries, with the aim of developing research teams and projects that tackle other local scientific challenges.


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