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First Frogs, Now Our Wheat?
The catastrophic decline and extinction of our planet’s amphibians, some believe, is due to a virulent fungus spreading around the globe. Scientists now find another strain of fungus, called Ug99 (or stem rust), has claimed a new victim: Our global wheat crops. According to The Jerusalem Post, the wheat fungus first found in Uganda eight years ago, is moving like wildfire through Africa. It now threatens to destroy some 70% of the world’s wheat crops. But this fungus, currently in Yemen and making its way north to Israel, may just get a dose of medicine: A native Israeli species of wheat, Sharon goatgrass (Aegilops sharonensis), found on Israel's coastal plain and in a few locations in Lebanon, is highly resistant to the fungus.
Scientists from the University of Minnesota and Tel Aviv University are proposing that genetic engineers take the “resistance” from Israel’s Sharon goatgrass and transplant it to at-risk varieties of wheat. Their research has been published in the American Phytopathological Society's journal, Plant Disease.
Led by Prof. Brian Steffenson from Minnesota and Prof. Yehoshua Anikster of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for Cereal Crops Improvement – the researchers believe they can offer hope to other scientists fighting the fungus.
Anikster says that Ug99 is "a very dangerous threat" to Israeli wheat, now cultivated on 850,000 dunams in the country. "The short-term solution for this disease is to apply fungicides to the wheat, but this comes with an economic and environmental cost."
The Israeli and American scientists are now working on collecting species for long-term storage in a Tel Aviv University gene bank. Ultimately the plan would be to transfer Ug99 resistance from the Israeli wheat to other wheat varieties. Researchers noted that even though Israel is a very small country, it has a wealth of genetic diversity in wild progenitors of wheat, barley, and oats. Anikster added that "the genes carried by these wild species are important for cereal production far beyond Israel's border."
TreeHugger.com. August 2007.
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