K-State researchers receive grant to study wheat, rice diseases

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Kansas State University researcher Barbara Valent and a team of colleagues have been awarded $5.5 million by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop novel disease control strategies for two closely-related diseases in rice and wheat - the latter of which has wreaked havoc in some South American wheat growing areas.

Valent, a university distinguished professor of plant pathology, is leading a team of K-State and national and international collaborators who are studying ways to protect Kansas and U.S. wheat fields from the deadly disease known as wheat blast. The team is also studying ways to protect U.S. rice from the deadly rice blast disease. Unlike wheat blast, rice blast is well established in the United States and in all other rice-growing countries.

"This disease - wheat blast - spreads quickly," Valent said. "It has not been found outside South America, but if we don't prepare by learning and educating others about detection, and look for ways to curb it if it does strike the U.S., the consequences could be enormous."

Both wheat blast and rice blast are explosive diseases under favorable weather conditions.

Blast disease, caused by the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae is a major constraint to global rice production and is an emerging and very serious threat to U.S. wheat, Valent said. Rice blast research over the past 20 years has provided a wealth of understanding on the molecular basis for blast resistance in rice.

"Our goal is to leverage this knowledge as part of an integrated approach to improve U.S. rice production and protect the nation's wheat crop," Valent said.

Wheat blast was first discovered in Brazil in 1985, and has since been found in Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina. Three years ago it cut production in Brazilian wheat states by up to 60 percent in some areas.

Rice blast caused significant crop losses in fields in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas in 2012 and the disease has already been reported this year in Louisiana.

"Our goal is to develop resistant varieties for control of both diseases," Valent said. "We plan to use traditional strategies for finding and deploying resistance genes, as well as novel strategies based on new knowledge generated by research on rice blast." Additional outcomes will be diagnostic tools, training resources for first detectors and responders, and a disease forecasting model. "Another important objective for this project is to educate undergraduate students in plant biosecurity."

"Arguably, rice and wheat are the two most important crops in the world," said K-State professor of plant pathology, James Stack, who is one of the research team members. "In most countries, either wheat or rice is a staple in citizens' diets. It's hard for people who have ready access to food to understand, but threats to either of those crops can be the difference between food security and hunger."

Typically, about one-fifth of all wheat grown in the United States is grown in Kansas, according to the Kansas Wheat Commission. About half of Kansas wheat is exported to other countries.

In 2012, Kansas produced 382 million bushels of winter wheat and overall U.S. production totaled 1.65 billion bushels, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

One of the many problems posed by wheat blast is that it looks a lot like some other wheat diseases, so it's sometimes hard to detect, said Stack, who serves as the director of the Great Plains Diagnostic Network, a consortium of nine states which is part of the National Plant Diagnostic Center. The GPDN coordinates diagnostics, communications and trains first detectors of plant diseases.

Because wheat blast has not been found in North American wheat, it is critical that the team's research be conducted in a secure facility. For that reason, the scientists are working in K-State's Biosecurity Research Institute, a facility that provides a safe and secure location to study high-consequence pathogens.

The grant, awarded by the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture through the 2012 Agriculture and Food Research Initiative's Food Security program, was part of more than $75 million in grants recently awarded to teams at 21 universities. The teams are working in research, education and extension activities to ensure greater food security in the United States and around the world, according to the USDA.

"Millions of American households lack the resources to access sufficient food, and many of those, including our children, may go hungry at least once this year," said Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, in making the grant announcement. "The grants announced today will help policymakers and others better recognize the food and nutrition needs of low-income communities in our country, while improving the productivity of our nation's agriculture to meet those needs.
Globally, the population is expected to grow by more than 2 billion people (to more than 9 billion) by 2050. By investing in the science of America's renowned land-grant universities, our aim is to find sustainable solutions to help systems expand to meet the demands of growing populations."

More information about wheat blast is available at http://www.k-state.edu/wheatblast/. More information about rice blast is available here.


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