WSU Plant Scientist Part of Global Efforts to Fight Deadly UG99 Wheat Rust

PULLMAN, Wash. -– Washington State University spring wheat breeder Michael Pumphrey is a team leader in a $40 million, global effort to combat UG99, an evolving wheat pathogen that poses a dangerous threat to global food security, especially those in developing countries.

Pumphrey heads a group of 17 principal investigators for the “Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat” project being led by Cornell University. The United Kingdom’s Department of International Development will contribute approximately $15 million to the project over the next five years; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will contribute $25 million.

“WSU’s leadership role in this global effort speaks to the overall quality of plant science being conducted here,” said Ralph Cavalieri, associate dean and director of WSU’s Agricultural Research Center. “It is important work that could make a major difference in how we feed the world in years to come. And, what we learn as a result of the project will benefit our own wheat breeding efforts for Washington growers.”

The project focuses on identifying new stem rust resistant genes in wheat, improving surveillance for the pathogen and multiplying and distributing rust-resistant wheat seed to farmers and their families. Participation includes national research centers in Kenya and Ethiopia; scientists at the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and Syria-based International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas; the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization; and advanced research laboratories in the United States, Canada, China, Australia, Denmark and South Africa. Altogether more than 20 leading universities and research institutes throughout the world are taking part in the project, along with scientists and farmers from more than 40 countries.

Pumphrey’s team is focusing on identifying new sources of resistance to UG99 and then making those sources useful in wheat breeding. They will conduct detailed genetics, pathology and molecular marker research to develop superior wheat lines.

WSU plant pathologist Tim Murray also is working on UG99, primarily to prevent a “homegrown” version of the disease by focusing on a different plant, common barberry. An ornamental plant that settlers carried with them across the United States, barberry is “an essential ingredient in the complicated life of a stem rust fungus, known as Pgt, that could be a precursor to UG99,” Murray said.

In a recent article in Wheat Life Magazine, Murray–along with USDA Agricultural Research Service plant pathologist and rust expert Xianming Chen and WSU Extension agronomist Diana Roberts–said that in addition to wheat or barley, Pgt “requires the common barberry to complete its life cycle.”

“So, although the Pacific Northwest may not be ground zero for stem rust infection, it has been shown to be an incubator for infections that can not only transmit the disease to fields as far away as Minnesota, but can actually produce new races of the stem rust fungus,” the group wrote.

With funding from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Murray, Chen and Roberts have formed a Pacific Northwest barberry working group to investigate reports of barberries and to educate those working in the grain industry about the plant’s dangers. Members of the barberry working group include state and federal scientists as well as extension educators from Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

The group plans to continue identifying new outbreaks of stem rust so they can monitor the situation, locate barberries, and eradicate them.