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March 18, 2009

Newly developed genes offer promise for beating wheat rust fungus threat

by Dennis Avery

Norman Borlaug is the most decorated civilian in history—largely because he was able to cross-breed a super-wheat that fended off the stem rust fungus, which had historically stolen one-fourth of the world's wheat crops. The fungus spores traveled worldwide on the wind, leaving poor farmers' families with tangled masses of wheat stems that yielded little grain.

Borlaug's wheat breeding success made him "the Father of the Green Revolution." He and his fellow high-yield farming scientists saved 1 billion people from famine in the 1970s. Now 94 and ill with cancer, the Iowa native eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and honorary degrees from 49 universities in 18 countries.

Borlaug warned the world last year, however, that the world's food security was again at risk. The long-term resistance to wheat he'd bred into the Green Revolution varieties was fading—and a new, more-voracious strain of black wheat stem rust had been found in Uganda in 1999. Instead of taking just one-fourth of a farmer's crop, researchers say that under the right conditions, U99 could take it all.

The black stem rust has already spread its spores from Uganda to Kenya, Ethiopia and Iran. It has probably already spread into Pakistan, and threatens the wheat crops in heavily populated India and Bangladesh. If it spreads worldwide, it would endanger the staple food for 35 percent of the planet's people.

Now the good news: Two breakthroughs in biotechnology have just produced two rust-resistance wheat genes that offer the most promising strategy ever found for beating the rust fungus threat.

Simon Krattinger at the Institute of Plant Pathology in Zurich looked at wheat seeds that carry a rust protection facto, which has been working for 50 years—but breeders hadn't been able to isolate it and put it broadly to work. In 2008, scientists at the French National Institute of Agronomic Research led a breakthrough in mapping the wheat gene, once thought too complex to map. The Zurich researchers quickly put the new map to work, knocking out genes in sequence until they finally found that the one that made a difference. It's called Lr34, and Krattinger thinks it's a protein that helps fight off diseases. Since the gene has already been active for 50 years, there's a good chance its protective factor will be long-lived.

The second biotech wheat breakthrough comes from Britain, where Cristobal Uauy of the John Innes Center identified a gene called Yr36. It's found in wild wheat but not in our bread or pasta wheats. "We have recovered a gene that has been lost during domestication, "Uauy said. "Now we have a new tool to combat this disease." The Innes researchers think their gene recognizes a lipid from a disease and somehow triggers a resistance response.

It's too soon to know whether either of these wheat-family genes will be the ones to stop the black stem rust. But it's already clear that our choice will be massive spraying of fungicides over our food fields, or using biotechnology to confer disease resistance.

Why is the environmental movement still trying to stop the use of biotech to protect the world's food? The Greens are still fixated on promoting organic crops that yield half as much food per acre as the high-tech farmers get. If the Green Revolution hadn't succeeded, the world would already have had to plow down its remaining wildlands to grow more low-yield crops.

When will the environmentalists admit they were wrong about biotechnology and stand aside to let science save our food—and our wildlands?

Dennis Avery is an environmental economist who serves as an academic advisor to CFACT and is also a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State.

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