World wheat crop threatened by fungus


Ok, who out there knows that St. Paul is home to a Cereal Disease Laboratory, and if so, did you know that the USDA facility (on the U of M campus) is helping combat a potentially catastropic wheat fungus, projected by some scientists as capable of demolishing most of the world's supply of the vital grain? A recent LA Times article details the threat of the fungus, called "stem rust:"

"It's a time bomb," said Jim Peterson, a professor of wheat breeding and genetics at Oregon State University in Corvallis. "It moves in the air, it can move in clothing on an airplane. We know it's going to be here. It's a matter of how long it's going to take."

Basically, it's swine flu for wheat. According to the article:

"Stem rust destroyed more than 20% of U.S. wheat crops several times between 1917 and 1935, and losses reached nearly 9% twice in the 1950s. The last major outbreak, in 1962, destroyed 5.2% of the U.S. crop, according to Peterson, who chairs the National Wheat Improvement Committee."

The only way to avert the spread of Ug99, as the fungus is called (named after where and when it originated, in Uganda in 1999), is to develop fungus-resistant breeds, which could take more than a decade to do the article says. Wheat, the article says, is the world's most widely grown crop.