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Understanding a devastating wheat disease

Researchers are using new gene sequencing technology alongside high-performance computing at NCI to understand the genetics of one of the world’s most devastating plant diseases: wheat stripe rust.

Wheat stripe rust is caused by a fungus that affects the leaves of wheat plants, affecting the plants’ health and grain production. The fungus reduces yields by up to 20 percent and costs the Australian wheat industry $125 million each year.

A close-up of a narrow, green leaf with lumpy, orange stripes going lengthwise across it.

Wheat stripe rust affecting the leaf of a wheat plant.

Farmers and scientists often try to prevent the spread of the disease by breeding resistant plants, but this is only effective in the short term. It turns out that the fungus, which carries two separate genomes, can use its complex genetic information to evolve and adapt to the various ‘resistant’ wheat varieties it is faced with.

Dr Benjamin Schwessinger from The Australian National University has worked with an international group of plant scientists to sequence both of the fungus’ complex genomes and properly understand why it behaves the way it does. Getting to that knowledge is the first step in much smarter breeding techniques that will target vulnerabilities in the fungus.

NCI’s supercomputer played a big role in making it happen, says Dr Schwessinger.

“NCI’s contribution made it possible to combine the long strings of genomic data produced by our sequencing machines into a complete genome. It took a lot of computing power that is difficult to find outside NCI.

“Our access to high-performance computing at NCI, alongside our new sequencing technology, provides a basis for improving the way we deal with this disease in the future. The disease is not going to go away, but our response will keep improving.”

A man faces away from the camera with a vaccum cleaner-like device on his back, and point his device into a field of discoloured wheat.

Dr Benjamin Schwessinger collecting spores of the Wheat Stripe Rust fungus from a NSW Department of Primary Industry test site.

The research team is already looking to sequence more versions of the fungus’ genomes. Given how fast they can change, getting more copies of the genomes to compare will give extra certainty to the results. From there, the team will keep coming up with new ways to reduce the impact of this disease on Australia’s agriculture and economy.

This international collaboration was led by researchers from The Australian National University and supported by researchers from the University of Sydney, University of Minnesota, CSIRO, and NSW Department of Primary Industry. The research has been published in the open access journal mBio at http://mbio.asm.org/content/9/1/e02275-17.full.

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