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New Research Facility Will Help Safeguard the Supply of Global Wheat Crops

By Chris Guy
June 13, 2011

ST. PAUL, Minn.—The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) today broke ground on a state-of-the-art greenhouse that will play a key role in helping scientists combat a growing global disease threat to the world's wheat and barley supplies. The 2,880-square-foot greenhouse will be operated by scientists from the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), USDA's principal intramural scientific research agency.

"Historically, stem rust has been the most destructive disease of wheat and barley, but in recent decades, scientists have been able to breed resistance to this disease into new varieties of wheat," said ARS Administrator Edward B. Knipling. "Since 1999, the world has faced a new and unprecedented threat from a stem rust called Ug99. More than 80 percent of our global wheat crop is vulnerable to Ug99. This new greenhouse for wheat research puts another U.S. research facility on the front lines to battle Ug99 and help secure global food security."

The greenhouse will increase controlled growing space at ARS' Cereal Disease Laboratory (CDL) on the University of Minnesota campus in St. Paul, and boost the laboratory's analytic capacity five-fold. The construction of the greenhouse is being funded through a $4.5 million cooperative agreement between USAID and USDA through Feed the Future, the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative. Feed the Future is a Presidential Initiate to improve agricultural productivity, promote market development, facilitate trade expansion, invest in global innovation and research, promote equitable rural economic growth, and address child malnutrition in 20 food-insecure countries.

"By expanding our commitment to research that targets crop diseases like Ug99, we can strengthen food security and reduce hunger and poverty in countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Pakistan," said Robert Bertram, head of USAID's Office of Agriculture, Research and Technology. "This research concurrently helps U.S. scientists protect America's wheat crops."

The scientists at the ARS Cereal Disease Laboratory are known worldwide for their expertise in tracking the emergence and spread of new virulent rust strains. The ARS scientists identify and characterize rust samples from all over the world, and collaborate with national agricultural research systems in developing countries to identify new rust strains.

The St. Paul laboratory also plays a leading role in ARS' research program to discover new genetic resistance to stem rust and other rusts and incorporate those genes into new wheat breeding material. The new greenhouse will help speed the hunt for these vital resistance genes.

ARS is coordinating the evaluation of wheat lines from U.S. wheat breeders—both public and private—for resistance to Ug99 in Africa. Since 2005, more than 14,000 lines from 28 universities, 11 companies and eight ARS laboratories have been tested in Kenya. These efforts link closely with USAID's support of international wheat research programs that develop resistant varieties of wheat adapted to the needs of farmers in at-risk regions such as East Africa and South Asia.

ARS also is distributing wheat breeding lines, which have already proven their ability to stand up to Ug99 in cooperative test nurseries in Kenya and Ethiopia, to wheat breeders and geneticists in 34 countries around the world.

Today's groundbreaking is part of a four-day research conference that has drawn 400 of the world's top wheat and barley experts to the University of Minnesota's Saint Paul campus. The conference is sponsored by the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, which was created with the support of the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate and University of Minnesota alumnus Norman Borlaug. The Borlaug Global Rust Initiative has led to international cooperation between researchers from ARS and more than 40 other institutions and countries since 2005.