Waste not, want not: The importance of being earnest about gene stewardship

The shortage of stem rust resistance genes effective against the Ug99 group prompted recent efforts to increase the number of resistance genes available to breeders. We are fortunate that many new and/or cytogenetically improved rust resistance genes are now being shared with the global wheat breeding community by their developers. If we are poor stewards of these resources, the new resistance genes will eventually be defeated, and we will waste the efforts and investments that have been made. However, if we are good stewards, we should have enough resistance to achieve sustainable, durable resistance. Stewardship can be defined as the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care. What should we do to safeguard the new resistance genes? Diversification of resistance is often suggested as a way to reduce the risk of large scale epidemics. Although diversification is generally a good idea, it cannot be at the expense of leaving new genes exposed and vulnerable. A durable combination (pyramid) must be designed so that the component genes protect each other. They should reduce the probability of simultaneous pathogen mutations to virulence and they should avoid stepwise erosion of the pyramid by preventing significant reproduction of any new race that is virulent on component genes. We need pyramids to be immune or nearly immune not only to current races, but to anticipated mutants. This objective should be achievable with three or more major genes or a combination of major and minor genes. Successful gene stewardship will depend on several things. On the technical side, we will need very good markers for each gene. Each breeding program will require strong genotyping support to assemble and then validate pyramids. Most importantly, successful stewardship will require that we organize our user community to cooperate more closely. We will need to decide which genes require special stewardship and which do not. Every user of the stewardship pool resource will need to participate in earnest. It only takes one cultivar with an unprotected gene to give the pathogen a stepping stone to greater virulence. As they say, a chain is only as strong as the weakest link

Robert Bowden
USDA-ARS, Hard Winter Wheat Genetics Research Unit
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