Scientists unravel fungus that threatens wheat crops

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Photo courtesy of APHIS, USDA

A U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher in St. Paul played a key role in sequencing the genome of a fungus that threatens wheat production world wide.

Les Szabo, a research geneticist at the Cereal Disease Lab led the research project the unraveled the genetic code of the wheat stem rust pathogen (Puccinia graminis).

The six-year project is expected to lead researchers to develop new ways to control the fungus.

A wheat fungus called Ug99 has spread across Africa and into Central Asia, with devastating effect.The fungus has been able to destroy most of the stem-rust-resistant wheat varieties developed over the past 50 years.

Researchers believe it’s only a matter of time before the deadly fungus reaches North America, as noted in this MPR story from 2008.

There are more than 6,000 rust fungus species, and this project represents the first genome-wide characterization of any rust fungus according to Szabo.

The gene sequence data is being made available to scientists trying to fight the spread of the fungus.

A release from the USDA Agricultural Research Service says the group also successfully mapped the genetic code of a fungus that attacks poplar trees which are commonly grown as a source of biomass fuel.

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