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  • Jefferson Adams
    Jefferson Adams

    Could a Wheat-killing Fungus Turn the Whole World Gluten-Free?

    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

    Celiac.com 09/25/2014 - Nine out of ten wheat crops around the globe are susceptible to a killer fungus that attacks wheat. The pathogen is Puccinia rust fungus. Puccinia triticina causes 'black rust', P.recondita causes 'brown rust' and P.striiformis causes 'Yellow rust'.

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons--NabokovOriginally named Ug99, but now known as wheat stem rust, the fungus affects wheat, barley and rye stems, leaves and grains, and causes plants to rot and die just a few weeks after infection. Infections can lead up to 20% yield loss exacerbated by dying leaves which fertilize the fungus. The fungus regularly causes serious epidemics in North America, Mexico and South America and is a devastating seasonal disease in India, and a widespread outbreak could destroy flour supplies as we know them.

    Previous solutions to the problem of wheat stem rust relied on simple crossbreeding. Beginning in the 1940s, breeders began combining rust-sensitive commercial wheat with hardier rust-resistant strains. However, those solutions were only temporary at best, as the rust always managed to find a way around rust-resistant genes after just three or four years.

    Scientists now use what they say is a more effective method of thwarting rust, wheat breeding, called “pyramiding,” in which multiple rust resistant genes are loaded onto a single wheat strain, potentially keeping rust at bay for decades to come, but pyramiding takes up to 15 years to produce a rust-resistant wheat strain. This means that the vast majority of wheat strains under cultivation could be subject to rust in the mean time.

    Obviously, not all of the wheat strains susceptible to rust will be affected in any given year, but major outbreaks can and do happen. The possibility that large percentages of the world’s wheat crops could be destroyed by rust are very real, hence the intensity of the efforts to develop rust-resistant strains as quickly as possible.

    However, if these efforts fail, or lose traction, look for non-wheat crops to fill the gap. That will mean large numbers of people going gluten-free for reasons having nothing to do with celiac disease or dietary fads.


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    Rather than hybridizing with rust resistant strains, why not just plant the rust resistant strain?

    Most often, the disease-resistant strains of crops are poor-yielding, or have other susceptibilities that make them undesirable. Before wheat was domesticated (more than 10,000 years ago), the wild ancestor was pretty worthless to grow for food. Thankfully, there are some 25,000 cultivars of wheat that have been developed, so there is a lot of genetic diversity that the breeders can tap into. But they are always only one step ahead of the pathogens -- for any crop.

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    Cool! wouldn't that be great for us. No more worries about cross-contamination.

    That's "cool" only if you are happy about world-wide starvation! And wheat is not the only grain crop that has gluten, so we would still have the same worries. There is no universally safe food for all people. In China, more people have an intolerance to rice than to wheat. Not only that, every single crop has it's own set of pathogens. (Just look up "rice diseases" in Wikipedia.) Breeders have the same problems in other crops as in wheat, and are applying the same technique of breeding in multiple resistances in an effort to keep ahead of pathogens. But pathogens are clever organisms and can adapt to mechanisms of resistance. Disease isn't good for people or plants. celiac disease is a heavy burden, but not an excuse to dump food sources of other people.

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    Another good reason to be gluten free and GMO free. Wheat is so far from the original plant, it's starting to get scary.

    If wheat were not so far from the original plant, it would not be a source of food today. The same goes for all the other grains, most of which are even farther from the original ancestor than wheat. Before crops were domesticated, there was no agriculture. People hunted and they gathered grains and berries from plants that yielded such meager nutrition that they had no time to do anything else but try to keep themselves fed. Domestication was accomplished by stone age plant breeders using some of the same approaches that are used today.

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    Rather than hybridizing with rust resistant strains, why not just plant the rust resistant strain?

    Good question. Likely for reasons having to do with lower yields, less favorable characteristics, lower resistance to other pests, and other factors.

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  • About Me

    Jefferson Adams is Celiac.com's senior writer and Digital Content Director. He earned his B.A. and M.F.A. at Arizona State University, and has authored more than 2,000 articles on celiac disease. His coursework includes studies in biology, anatomy, medicine, science, and advanced research, and scientific methods. He previously served as SF Health News Examiner for Examiner.com, and devised health and medical content for Sharecare.com. Jefferson has spoken about celiac disease to the media, including an appearance on the KQED radio show Forum, and is the editor of the book "Cereal Killers" by Scott Adams and Ron Hoggan, Ed.D.

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