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  • Department of Global Development
  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Plant Breeding and Genetics Section
  • Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology Section
  • Global Development
  • Plants

The rust-resistant wheat cultivar development team at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) earned the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) 2021 Gene Stewardship Award for their long-standing innovations and strategies to combat wheat rust in Canada and around the world.

The BGRI Gene Stewardship Award is the premier recognition for researchers serving a national breeding program or other nationally based institution for their contribution to wheat rust resistance research. The AAFC team developed a model and standard for the preservation of the important rust resistance genes that integrates pathology with genetics and the development of rust resistant germplasm with combinations of effective rust resistance genes.

The award was presented on October 8 at the BGRI 2021 Virtual Technical Workshop.

“With a core team of wheat breeders, pathologists, cytogeneticists and molecular biologists, the AAFC team has maintained an enduring commitment protecting wheat in Canada and around the globe,” said Ronnie Coffman, vice chair of the BGRI and professor in Cornell’s Department of Global Development. “They are collaborators who work across disciplines and borders to provide support and germplasm to develop rust-resistant cultivars.”

The team includes:

  • Tom Fetch, Stem Rust Pathologist
  • Brent McCallum, Leaf Rust Pathologist
  • Reem Aboukhaddour, Stripe Rust Pathologist
  • Ron Knox, Molecular Pathologist
  • Samia Berraies, Molecular Pathologist
  • Santosh Kumar, Wheat Breeder
  • Gavin Humphreys, Wheat Breeder
  • Andrew Burt, Wheat Breeder
  • Richard Cuthbert, Wheat Breeder
  • Yuefeng Ruan, Wheat Breeder
  • Robert Graf, Wheat Breeder
  • Harpinder Randhawa, Wheat Breeder
  • Colin Hiebert, Cytogeneticist
  • R. Kerber, Cytogeneticist
  • George Fedak, Cytogeneticist
  • L. Dyck, Geneticist
  • Sylvie Cloutier, Molecular Biologist
  • André Laroche, Molecular Biologist
  • Curt McCartney, Molecular Biologist

“AAFC wheat rust pathologists, geneticists, and plant breeders have worked for nearly 100 years to develop cultivars with durable rust resistance and share germplasm with wheat breeding institutions worldwide in the global effort to develop wheat security from epidemic losses to the rust pathogens,” said Fetch. “We are thrilled to be honored by the BGRI and we are committed to continued collaboration with dedicated scientists all over the world.”

Maricelis Acevedo, associate director of science for the BGRI and research professor of global development at Cornell, said “The Gene Stewardship award recognizes the unfailing commitment of teams of scientists to protect genetic resources. The award honors excellence and the collaborative spirit needed for a global, interconnected community like ours. The AAFC team has discovered and characterized some of the most important rust resistance genes in wheat, and their contributions to wheat security are unparalleled.”

Wheat geneticists and rust pathologists from AAFC have found and genetically characterized leaf and stem rust genes used today by wheat breeders worldwide. Scientists at AAFC have discovered or co-authored 34 of the 80 leaf rust genes currently described. Additionally, AAFC scientists have discovered or co-authored 14 of the 61 stem rust resistance genes. Many of these have resistance to the highly virulent race Ug99 and are of critical importance to wheat breeders worldwide for their high effectiveness to stem rust. These genes are used today in Canadian wheat breeding programs and are useful in developing durable rust resistance using a pyramid of rust resistance genes.

“The success of the AAFC program has stemmed from its ongoing commitment to practical outcomes from a model that integrates pathology with genetics and the development of rust resistant germplasm with combinations of effective rust resistance genes. This approach is widely accepted as the most effective means of preserving all important rust resistance genes,” said Robert Park, the Judith & David Coffey Chair in Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Sydney.

The AAFC program has a long history of research dedicated to developing resistant wheat varieties. Due to recurring severe epidemics of stem and leaf rust that occurred in the early part of the 20th century in Canada, the precursor to the modern AAFC was established in Winnipeg in the winter of 1925. The mandate guiding those early efforts was to study virulence diversity in the rust fungi, discover and genetically characterize new host resistance genes, and ultimately to develop new wheat cultivars with durable stem, leaf, and stripe rust resistance.

The current AAFC wheat cultivar team shares that mandate but has expanded their reach to a global scale. Canadian researchers were some of the first to recognize east Africa as a stem rust hot spot and helped build rust research facilities in Kenya at the Njoro research station in the late 1960s/ early1970s to undertake searches for alternative sources of stem rust resistance.

“The AAFC team has worked hard to protect Canada from rust outbreaks and in addition, their enthusiasm for collaboration has positioned them as key members of the international response to rust outbreaks around the world,” said Zak Pretorius, research fellow in the Department of Plant Sciences, University of the Free State. “The team has always been willing to share germplasm, cooperate in international projects and contribute extensively to the global body of rust resources.”

In the early 2000s, Nobel Prize-winner Norman Borlaug, Coffman and a team of researchers met to galvanize support for a global consortium of scientists to tackle the problem of Ug99. In 2008, Borlaug and Coffman founded the BGRI at Cornell University with partners from around the world. Since 2012, the BGRI has presented the Gene Stewardship Award in recognition of researchers serving a national breeding program or other nationally based institution. The Gene Stewardship Award has been presented to teams from the United States, India, Kenya, Ethiopia, Australia and Nepal.

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