14.8 Black stem rust (Puccinia graminis f. sp. tritici) threatens global wheat harvest

‘Stem rust fungus threatens global wheat harvest’ is a real newspaper headline from March 2009 (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/mar/19/rust-fungus-global-wheat-crops), although stem or black rust, caused by Puccinia graminis tritici, has a history of causing severe losses to worldwide wheat (Triticum aestivum) production. Indeed this was at one time the most feared disease of then wheat crop.  Feared because what looked like a healthy crop about three weeks before harvest could be reduced by stem rust to a black tangle of broken stems and shrivelled grain by harvest time. The first detailed reports of crop loss to wheat stem rust appeared in Italy in the 18th century and two devastating stem rust epidemics in North America in 1904 and 1916 led directly to research that showed that the stem rust pathogen had various races that differed in their ability to infect wheat varieties because the latter carried different combinations of resistance genes.

This was followed by a concentration of research on identifying resistance to stem rust and breeding resistant wheat cultivars, and on understanding rust epidemiology and evolution. Another important point is that these efforts also initiated global collaboration between wheat geneticists and plant pathologists.

Understanding the biology of the disease revealed the relationship between the common barberry (Berberis vulgaris) and Puccinia graminis. Barberry is the alternate host of P. graminis, and provides the sexual stage of the pathogen’s life cycle so is the source of new combinations of virulence genes in the pathogen population. In addition, barberry enables the pathogen to survive through the winter and therefore serves as the source of new stem rust epidemics on wheat in the spring. Common barberry had been planted widely as an ornamental bush, but eradication of the alternate host in North America and Europe was an important step in controlling stem rust epidemics. Between 1918 and 1980, over 500 million barberry bushes were destroyed in the major wheat-producing states in the United States.

The barberry eradication programme was accompanied by efforts to devise genetic control strategies. The International Spring Wheat Rust Nursery Program was initiated in 1950 by the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service and operated continuously until the mid-1980s. Its objectives were to:

  • find new genes or combinations of genes in wheat for field resistance to rusts throughout the world, and
  • test new varieties and selections of wheat developed by plant breeders and pathologists for resistance to rusts.

About 50 resistance genes in wheat have been catalogued; all but one of which are race-specific, and therefore derive from the gene-for-gene relationship between the host plant resistance gene and corresponding pathogen virulence genes (see Section 14.17).

All of these efforts stabilised the stem rust situation in many countries where modern wheat cultivars were adopted. For example, changes in stem rust races have not been observed in Mexico for almost 40 years and natural infections are non-existent. Similarly, a resistant wheat cultivar released in 1960 in the Indian subcontinent and subsequently grown on millions of hectares, remains resistant to stem rust today. The incidence of stem rust decreased throughout most of the world to almost non-significant levels by the mid-1990s. So if control of wheat stem rust was such a successful undertaking, why the headlines? The problem is that, unfortunately, as disease incidence declined, there was a corresponding decline in emphasis on research on stem rust and wheat breeding against this disease.

The fungus got ahead of us. First identified in Uganda during 1999, P. graminis tritici Race Ug99 is the only known race that has virulence for a wheat resistance gene (Sr31, derived from rye, Secale cereale) which is used (as a chromosomal translocation) in many of the most widely used wheat cultivars. Ug99 also carries virulence for most of the resistance genes of wheat that have been introduced over the years by selective breeding. This is the headline: Ug99 carries a unique combination of virulence to known and unknown resistance genes of wheat and a great many wheat cultivars are susceptible to Ug99 irrespective of where they were developed. It is now believed that 80-90% of all wheat varieties grown in developing countries are susceptible to the new race of stem rust.

Yield losses of up to 80% were recently recorded in Kenya and Uganda. Spores of Ug99 can be carried by the wind for hundreds of miles and it spread rapidly to Ethiopia and Sudan. Race Ug99 is now widespread in Yemen and Iran. If it continues to travel east it will infect major wheat growing areas in the Indian subcontinent that produce 15% of the world’s wheat.

What we need is more research and new resistant wheat strains.

Resources Box

More information about plant pathogens

More information about plant pathogens can be found in the British Society of Plant Pathology’s Pathogen profiles, which are a regular feature in the journal Molecular Plant Pathology and BSPPWeb providing brief overviews of the latest research on particular pathogens.

Profile summaries are available at http://www.bspp.org.uk/ [go to <Publications> and then click on <Molecular Pl. Pathology>]
Full articles can be downloaded from the Blackwell Molecular Plant Pathology web site [http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/journal.asp?ref=1464-6722&site=1]

We would also strongly recommend a visit to the teaching materials on the website maintained by the Department of Plant Pathology of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA at this URL:


Updated December 17, 2016