Research looks for solution to wheat, barley disease

Research looks for solution to wheat, barley disease

Few know that rust does not only develop on metals, but also develops on plants in the form of disease. Stripe rust affects wheat and barley crops causing serious financial loss for farmers.

The disease is especially a problem for local farmers, who produce mass amounts of wheat used and exported from the U.S.

The Pacific Northwest also has the ideal climate for stripe rust because the fungus prefers cooler weather and moisture in the air.

With moisture coming inland from the coasts of Washington and cold but not freezing winters on the eastern side of the state, stripe rust thrives on the chilly nights with dew most commonly observed in the cooler months, said Kent Evans, a top researcher employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We’re all wondering how climate change will affect the host and the pathogen,” he said.

The disease also affects farmers in other parts of the world as well, said Xianming Chen, the head researcher in plant pathology research in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and WSU.

“Stripe rust is the most important disease in wheat throughout the country and worldwide,” he said.

Stripe rust is a fungus that relies on a plant host. The fungus utilizes the water and nutrients in the plant to grow on and into the plant’s leaves, ultimately dehydrating the plant while robbing it of food reserves. When spores appear on the leaf of a plant, the leaf becomes yellow. This disease affects wheat farmers everywhere, from cereal wheat farmers in Whitman County to pasta wheat farmers in Italy.

What makes stripe rust a difficult disease to combat is its ability to change and adapt. The researchers working with Chen focus on tracking the disease and its changes to better prepare farmers for the next year.

“The Center[s] for Disease Control monitors the influenza virus in people throughout the year, and we do the same for stripe rust on wheat because the fungus is always changing,” Evans said.

Susceptible breeds of wheat can suffer a 40 percent or more loss of crop yield, which can be a devastating financial blow for farmers, Chen said. Not only do farmers lose their profit when facing diseased wheat, they also lose physical and financial resources put into growing plants that became infected.

Chen said he encourages farmers to protect their fields against the fungus by planting breeds of wheat that are less susceptible to the disease or using fungicides if possible.