India is getting ready to fight Ug99, a deadly fungus causing stem rust, which has destroyed wheat fields across Kenya and reached Iran.
Trombay-based Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) has developed radiation-induced resistance mutations in wheat that it hopes can withstand the fungus.
In the two-year research, BARC scientists used
radiation-induced mutation technique (see box) on two popular wheat varieties to develop new mutants that could be used if the rust finds its way to India.
First identified in Uganda in 1999 — hence the name Ug99 — the virulent fungus has moved to Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen and most recently to Iran.
“Since the spores of the fungus travel with wind and come down with rain, the disease may come to India,” warned Stanislaus F. D’Souza, head, Nuclear Agriculture and Biotechnology Division, BARC.
Scientists closely monitoring the fungus disease fear it may not take too much time to enter India via Pakistan.
“Resistant varieties have to be developed and kept ready for use if needed. If popular varieties are used for inducing mutation, the new mutant variety will find immediate acceptability,” said D'souza.
The work assumes importance as India produces more than 70 million tonnes of wheat annually, making it the second largest producer of wheat in the world after China. India is also the second largest consumer of wheat.
BARC is awaiting permission from the appropriate Indian agency to send the mutant varieties for screening and testing to Kenya — a country infested with Ug99 — to check their efficacy.
The Ug99 fungus grows on the stems and other parts of wheat plant and derives nutrition from the plant ultimately weakening the stem so that plants can no longer stand upright. Infected plants produce fewer seeds and may die.
“Given the importance of wheat to India, any threat whether a pest or disease or an abiotic factor (drought, heat or salinity) is extremely important,” said David Hodson, international focal point for the Wheat Rust Disease Global Programme, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.