South Asia

Published: Tuesday 15 April 2008

wheat fungi may have reached pakistan: A fungus, deadly for wheat, may have reached Pakistan two years earlier than predicted, said researchers at a recent meeting in Syria. The meeting was to decide on emergency measures to track the progress of the fungus, Ug99, which is a virulent strain of black stem rust (Puccinia graminis).

Identified in Uganda in 1999, the fungus has since invaded eastern African countries like Kenya and Ethiopia. Last year, it reached Yemen (see 'Nautical miles away', Down To Earth, February 28, 2007).

From previous fungal invasions, scientists had expected that the prevailing winds would carry Ug99 spores from Africa to Egypt, Turkey and Syria, and then east to Iran. However, the tropical cyclone Gonu, which hit the Arabian peninsula in June 2007 and swept through the Arabian Sea, blew the fungus to Iran earlier than predicted. Researchers now fear that the winds could also have blown the fungus' spores into Pakistan, which is not only critically reliant on its wheat crops, but also is the gateway to the Asian breadbasket. Scientists at the meeting also deliberated methods to slow the fungus' spread by spraying fungicide or stopping farmers from planting wheat in the spores' path.

However, since Ug99 has become resistant to three major anti-rust genes, used in almost all wheat varieties across the world, scientists said, the only real remedy will be new wheat varieties with multi-gene resistance. However, it will take at least five years to develop such multi-gene resistant wheat variety, they said.

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