Stopping the Cereal Killer

By Anna Tiley

With the world’s population predicted to exceed 9 billion people by 2050, serious concerns are being raised about future food availability. A big challenge will be to produce sufficient food to meet the growing demand in the face of climate change and increasingly limited resources such as water and land.

One of the ways in which this might be done is by reducing the amount of crops that are lost to pests and diseases.

It is estimated that around 14.1% of all crops grown worldwide are lost to disease, an amount that costs about £140 billion annually. Therefore, reducing disease incidence not only has the potential to increase food production, but it would do so without applying additional pressure to scarce resources.

Wheat is among the top three most important cereal crops in the world and is farmed on over 240 million hectares worldwide. One of the major diseases affecting wheat is Septoria Wheat Blotch which is caused by a fungal pathogen called Mycosphaerella graminicola.

This fungus is found globally, ultimately anywhere where wheat grows. It attacks the plant by infecting and slowly killing the leaves.

Not only is this fungus deadly, but it is also able to travel fast over large distances. This is achieved by the production of thousands of spores which are carried in the wind and rain to infect new hosts.

Preventing these spores from being made could therefore be a vital the key to controlling this disease.

Current research in this area aims to improve our understanding of the important stages in spore development. Knowing how these spores are made and what they require for development could highlight new ways of tackling the fungus.

With this information, new chemicals or resistant wheat varieties could be developed which reduce or stop spore formation. This would therefore prevent the disease from spreading and could protect wheat fields from the pathogen. As a result, fields would be healthier and more productive.