Scientists come together to combat wheat rustby Rupa Shenoy, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Scientists working on a way to permanently protect wheat crops from a destructive fungus meet in St Paul Monday.
Wheat rust is an age-old fungus that scientists say spreads through fields, turning healthy wheat crops black. Ronnie Coffman, a Cornell University professor of plant breeding, said the fungus plagues farmlands in east Africa but has the potential to spread to other continents.
Coffman said scientists currently battle the fungus by creating wheat strains with one rust-resistant gene. But he said the rust fungus quickly adapts.
"The pathogen mutates and overcomes it. But our theory is if we can stack three or four genes together -- the chance of the pathogen being able to mutate and overcome that kind of a construction would be almost impossible."
He said new molecular tools can identify several resistant genes.
According to Coffman, scientists want to create an international organization that would monitor the fungus and take steps to stop it before it mutates.
"You're contemplating changing the seed of the entire wheat crop around the world, so we're talking about billions of dollars in cost. So we need donors to step up, we need national governments to step up, we need a general awareness of this threat."
Coffman will speak at the conference this week.