Quantification of atmospheric dispersion and identification of likely airborne transmission routes of emerging strains of wheat stem rust

Marcel Meyer


University of Cambridge

J.A. Cox , D.P. Hodson, L. Burgin, M.C. Hort and C.A. Gilligan



Use of large-scale computational resources has permitted the first quantitative study of airborne migration routes of fungal spores between numerous key epidemiological hot-spots of wheat stem rust in Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. By coupling a state-of-the-art Lagrangian particle dispersion model (NAME) with mechanistic epidemiological models, we simulate turbulent atmospheric transport of large ensembles of fungal spores from source sites. The models use highly resolved global meteorological datasets from the UK Meteorological Office. We consider release of P. graminis uredinospores from numerous source locations over an 11 year period (2003-2014) and simulate atmospheric trajectories over a 10 km2 spatial sampling grid to elucidate spore deposition rates at national, regional, and continental spatial scales. Our systematic exploration permits the first quantitative perspective and ranking of likely airborne transmission routes of wheat stem rust. We identify migration trends within and between the “Rift valley epidemiological zone”, the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent, as well as South Africa. Our results indicate (I) consistent seasonal dispersal patterns, (II) likely airborne transmission of stem rust from the Middle East to North-East Africa, and (III) suggest that there is considerable risk of spread of Ug99 or other virulent races from Eastern Yemen to the Indian subcontinent. Model results indicate that over the 11 year study period, viable spore deposition occurred between Eastern Yemen and Pakistan on average 22 days per year during overlapping wheat growing seasons. The validity of the modelling framework has been successfully tested by comparison with survey data from the 2013 epidemic outbreak in Ethiopia, and was recently used as a risk assessment tool to provide rapid response advice in different East-African countries. Known stem rust race distributions are also supportive of the model outputs. The research we have been doing allows a quantitative perspective on likely airborne transmission routes of Ug99 or other virulent races of wheat rust. By that we hope to provide new insights and recommendations for future risk assessment, survey and control strategies and also to contribute to fundamental understanding of epidemiological spread on regional and continental scales. The work we would like to present is the result of a joint effort of Dr Laura Burgin and Dr Matt Hort from the UK Meteorological office, Dr Dave Hodson from CIMMYT, and Dr James Cox, Matthew Hitchings and me from the Epidemiology and Modelling group of Prof Gilligan in Cambridge.