The rice blast fungus is a feared pathogen, even after genetic research discovered how to introduce resistance in rice plants. When wheat fields in Brazil were infected by the blast fungus in 1985, scientists grew anxious that the wheat pathogen would spread before tools to control it could be developed.
Barbara Valent, PhD, took on the blast-fungus challenge. Through her and other researchers’ work, 25 blast resistance genes have been isolated from rice, but the resistance is not permanent. The fungus rapidly overcomes resistance and then the disease can only be managed with chemical fungicides. Her research aims to understand how the fungus causes disease and how it evolves so quickly.
Two to three years after we deploy a rice blast resistance gene, the resourceful fungus adapts. We need to find something that the pathogen cannot overcome.
– Dr. Barbara Valent
The situation in wheat ﬁelds is even more urgent. In 2009, Brazil lost one third of its wheat crop to blast, which has spread in South America and recently emerged in Bangladesh. Dr. Valent leads an international team that has developed tools to help stop the spread, including diagnostics, forecasting models and educational resources. They found one blast resistance gene for wheat and are working against the clock to discover more sources and mechanisms of resistance before the fungus spreads to other areas, further compromising the food supply.