New Investigator Award to help arrest global cereals killer

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Dr Ksenia Krasileva, Group Leader at The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) and the Earlham Institute (EI), has been awarded a New Investigator Award from the BBSRC to fund research into the cereal killer - wheat yellow rust.

The project aims to vastly reduce the time taken to identify disease resistance to wheat yellow rust from 15 - 20 years down to only two or three.

Wheat Yellow Rust

With a 70 percent increase in global agriculture productivity needed to feed nine billion people by 2050, immediate action against the deadly wheat yellow rust is necessary to secure our global food supplies.

Utilising the most up-to-date and comprehensive wheat genome assembly and other national and international wheat genomics tools, Dr Krasileva will lead a team of scientists to find and breed plants that can better fend off this disease, and potentially reduce the need for pesticides to control it.

Occupying nearly 25% of agricultural land, wheat is the most prevalent cultivated plant worldwide. With annual production at more than 650 million tons globally, this key crop accounts for a quarter of all calories and a fifth of all protein consumed worldwide, and yet the annual yield increases are critically below the rate required to feed our growing population.

Wheat rust can cause devastating crop losses, and currently fungicides are used to control the disease – a costly solution for both farmers and for the environment.

By applying the latest DNA sequencing technologies to wheat breeding, it is possible to rapidly produce plants with much better natural defences, therefore reducing an over-reliance on harmful chemical sprays. This will also help farmers in the developing world, who often cannot afford to protect their crops and can suffer huge losses.

Dr Krasileva, said: “Wheat, like humans, has an advanced immune system. Funding from the New Investigator Award will help to harness this aspect of wheat to improve the health of the plants and our planet. Growing wheat varieties resistant to diseases is an economical and environmentally friendly solution to increase yield on available agricultural land while reducing production costs.”

By studying a variety of wheat plants and the diseases that affect them, Dr Krasileva’s group aims to identify new resistance traits. Through this research, breeders will be better informed to introduce defensive measures in the most widely grown varieties around the world.

Dr Dina Raats, postdoctoral scientist on the project, added: “Isolation of novel rust resistance genes that are derived from cultivated wheat will make these economically important traits immediately available for ongoing wheat breeding programmes.”

“Knowing the genomic locations of new disease resistance is key to accelerate this process. The gene isolation approach developed here will be applicable to any genetic trait of interest.”

The BBSRC New Investigator Scheme aims to assist early-career researchers in obtaining their first major element of research funding. As well as funding the main bulk of the research into wheat disease resistance, this grant will allow for the cross-disciplinary training of the postdoctoral scientists who carry out the work, and enhanced research capacity for industry and non-profit organisations.