Australian team recognised for responsible gene stewardship

28 August 2013

Recognising their efforts to combat wheat rust diseases, the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) awarded the Gene Stewardship prize to researchers at three Australian institutions this month during the 2013 BGRI Technical Workshop in New Delhi, India.

The winning researchers are from the University of Sydney, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the University of Adelaide.

Collectively, the institutions are referred to as the Australian Cereal Rust Control Team.
The BGRI's Gene Stewardship award is given annually to scientists who contribute to responsible management of genetic resources of wheat.

The Australian researchers were selected for outstanding achievements in 15 areas, including developing programs for stacking resistance genes, creating molecular markers, strategic planning for durable, long-lasting disease resistant wheat varieties, highly effective training programs, willingness to share genetic resources, and strong efforts to clone resistance genes.

The winning researchers from the University of Sydney's Plant Breeding Institute are Urmil Bansal, Harbans Bariana, Haydar Karaoglu, Robert McIntosh, Robert Park, Davinder Singh, Peng Zhang and Colin Wellings (seconded from the NSW Department of Primary Industries).

Professor Robert Park said, "This award says as much about the long term research effort at the University of Sydney as it does the vision of our grains industry, at all levels, in supporting a national program that has sought sustainable genetic solutions to rust control in all cereals."

Professor Robert Park from the Plant Breeding Institute, Cobbitty
Professor Robert Park from the Plant Breeding Institute, Cobbitty

Sarah Evanega, associate director of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project, and adjunct professor of plant breeding at Cornell University said:

"So much great work is being done at these Australian institutions. Their expertise, their collaborative spirit and their recognition of the importance of developing durably resistant varieties serve as an inspiration for rust scientists all over the world. With this award, we gratefully recognize the efforts of the Australian Cereal Rust Control Team."

Wheat rust, a fungal pathogen, significantly reduces crop yields and, in the case of stem rust, can destroy entire wheat fields. Scientists work to develop new varieties of wheat that have genetic resistance to rust by deploying specific rust resistant genes as barriers against rust. As an analogy, think of resistance genes as a locked door, refusing entry to rust even as pathogens constantly evolve to develop keys to unlock those doors. Once rust pathogens unlock a door, or overcome a resistance gene, they never forget how to open that particular door. And so that gene is forever removed from wheat breeders' toolboxes.

One method the Australian researchers employ to create durably resistant varieties is to "stack" multiple genes together, building a stronger barrier for rust to overcome. In effect, if rust is able to unlock the door, it finds another locked door behind it. The deployment of wheat varieties with stacked resistance genes helps ensure that each new variety will remain immune to the ravages of rust for longer periods of time.

The Australian team also uses molecular markers to simplify the process of creating varieties with disease resistance in addition to higher yields and other desirable traits.
"The collaborative nature of the three institutions is similar to resistance genes: working together they accomplish more good than one alone," said Sarah Evanega.

The Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, founded in 2005 by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug, is an international collaborative effort to fight wheat rust.

Contact: Professor Robert Park

Phone: 02 9351 8806

Email: 4b07502b374719410737121227320756562319070d01672f4d