heat gets rust. Maize (corn) getsrust. Also barley, millet, triticale,and oats. In fact, all cereals,except rice, are susceptible to rust.Rust is a disease that suffocates a plant’s photosynthetic process, renderingthe crop weak and unable to provide goodyields.Rice, the “stainless steel” amongcereal grasses, has long intrigued plant breeders and plant pathologists. Norman Borlaug, the father of theGreen Revolution and patriarch of modern wheat varieties, believed that, by discovering the genes that make riceimmune to rusts, scientists might be ableto introduce these genes into other cerealgrains such as wheat and maize.
Quest or discovery
Finding out what makes rice resistantto rust is Hei Leung’s quest. This plant pathologist at the International RiceResearch Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños,Philippines, focuses his research on ricegenetic diversity and discovery, andmeeting the needs of future generationsfor rice genetic resources.“It’s not that rice does not get rust,”says Dr. Leung. “Rather, rice does notsuccumb to the disease even when itencounters the rust pathogen. For mostrice accessions, there is no macroscopicevidence of rust colonization. Rice is atrue nonhost of most rust species.”Millions of yellow- or rust-coloreduredospores (the asexual spores) of morethan 4,000 species of rust fungi are bornearound the world and carried by the windand jet stream. They land on a host plantlike wheat or maize, germinate, and thengrow toward a stomatal pore on the leaf surface to initiate infection.Rust infections produce red or yellow pustulating uredospores thatgive infected plants a “rusty” look.In susceptible plants, rust cuts off the plants’ ability to photosynthesizenutrients in their leaves and transportnutrients in their stems. Infection byrusts causes stems to weaken and plantsto “lodge,” or fall over, making whatlittle yield there is nearly impossible toharvest.
A dreaded plant disease
Wheat rust is one of the world’s mostdreaded plant diseases. A source of plagues since Biblical times, rustdevastated the wheat crop in NorthAmerica as recently as 1953. Since 1998,Ug99, a form of stem rust, has been
devastating wheat farmers’ elds in East
Africa, and is even now marching towardthe world’s breadbasket in the Middle
East and South Asia, particularly India.
It threatens to disrupt food security for the millions of people who depend uponwheat as a staple.
Scientists embark on a quest to discover what makes rice resistant to rust disease andreplicate the trait in other cereal crops
Dr. Hei Lg (
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