Aussie team recognized for responsible gene stewardship

John Bakum
Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Robert Park
Robert Park
Plant Breeding Institute
NEW DELHI, INDIA: Recognizing superlative efforts to combat wheat rust diseases, the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) awarded the Gene Stewardship prize to researchers at three Australian institutions today during the 2013 BGRI Technical Workshop in New Delhi, India. The winning researchers are from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the University of Sydney, and the University of Adelaide. Collectively, the institutions are referred to as the Australian Cereal Rust Control Team.

The BGRI’s Gene Stewardship award is given annually to scientists who contribute to responsible management of genetic resources of wheat. The Australian researchers were selected for outstanding achievements in 15 areas, including developing programs for stacking resistance genes, creating molecular markers, strategic planning for durable, long-lasting disease resistant wheat varieties, highly effective training programs, willingness to share genetic resources, and strong efforts to clone resistance genes.

The winning researchers are Ian Dundas, University of Adelaide, Michael Ayliffe, Peter Dodds, Jeff Ellis, Evans Lagudah, Rohit Mago, Sambasivam Periyannan, Wolfgang Spielmeyer, CSIRO, Urmil Bansal, Harbans Bariana, Haydar Karaoglu, Robert McIntosh, Robert Park, Davinder Singh, Colin Wellings (seconded from the NSW Department of Primary Industries), and Peng Zhang, University of Sydney, Plant Breeding Institute.

Representing the University of Adelaide is Ian Dundas. “An overriding issue with deployment of stem rust resistance genes is that we researchers and our host Institutions have an obligation to act for the public good and this surely encompasses the responsible sharing of rust resistance genes. When we share a resistance gene we request the breeders do not deploy any resistance gene on its own, but rather in combination with another effective stem rust resistance gene,” Dundas said.

Peter Dodds, from CSIRO, said, “The CSIRO-Sydney University rust resistance gene marker group identifies important resistance gene targets and develops and provides wheat breeders’ markers, which are accurate and simple-to-use DNA markers that can be used world-wide in diverse international germplasm for important rust resistance genes. Importantly for durable rust resistance, these markers enable breeders to assemble stacks of multiple resistance genes.”

From the University of Sydney, Robert Park said, “This award says as it says as much about the long term research effort at the University of Sydney as it does the vision of our grains industry, at all levels, in supporting a national program that has sought sustainable genetic solutions to rust control in all cereals.”

“The nominating credentials of each institution were so strong that the selection committee couldn’t pick one. Their spirit of collaboration was the inspiration for combining the nominations into one award,” said Sarah Evanega, associate director of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project, and adjunct professor of plant breeding at Cornell University. “So much great work is being done at these Australian institutions. Their expertise, their collaborative spirit and their recognition of the importance of developing durably resistant varieties serve as an inspiration for rust scientists all over the world. With this award, we gratefully recognize the efforts of the Australian Cereal Rust Control Team.”

Wheat rust, a fungal pathogen, significantly reduces crop yields and, in the case of stem rust, can destroy entire wheat fields. Scientists work to develop new varieties of wheat that have genetic resistance to rust by deploying specific rust resistant genes as barriers against rust. As an analogy, think of resistance genes as a locked door, refusing entry to rust even as pathogens constantly evolve to develop keys to unlock those doors. Once rust pathogens unlock a door, or overcome a resistance gene, they never forget how to open that particular door. And so that gene is forever removed from wheat breeders’ toolboxes.

One method the Australian researchers employ to create durably resistant varieties is to “stack” multiple genes together, building a stronger barrier for rust to overcome. In effect, if rust is able to unlock the door, it finds another locked door behind it. The deployment of wheat varieties with stacked resistance genes helps ensure that each new variety will remain immune to the ravages of rust for longer periods of time.
The Australian team also utilizes molecular markers to simplify the process of creating varieties with disease resistance in addition to higher yields and other desirable traits.

“The collaborative nature of the three institutions is similar to resistance genes: working together they accomplish more good than one alone,” said Evanega.
The Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, founded in 2005 by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug, is an international collaborative effort to fight wheat rust. The BGRI would like to thank the Australian Grains Research and Development Corporation for long-term support of Australian Cereal Rust Control Program.