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Research works to tame toxic fungus in wheat

Wheat growers understand the fuss about fusarium, a fungus that can aggressively grow under humid conditions, infecting the crop and reducing grain yield. A University of North Texas researcher, Jyoti Shah, chair of the biological sciences department, is working on a new approach to knock out this fungus and improve food availability for the future.

Fusarium head blight, a disease that affects wheat and bar­ley, can cause losses ranging from $300 million to $1 billion a year in the U.S. alone, he said.

“The infected wheat becomes useless as a food source, both for humans as well as for animal feed,” said Shah, who has been researching wheat for nearly 20 years. “Even if the farmers spray it with fungicides, the disease occurs when it’s already damp and raining. There is high probability that the fungicide will get washed away.”

No wheat variety is already resistant to fusarium, Shah ex­plained. That means genes can’t be moved from one variety to another, which is what scientists normally do to control other diseases.

The research team is working to identify genes in the wheat plant that make it susceptible to the fungus. Reducing activity of these genes increases resistance to the disease. While many approaches to the issue have been tried throughout the years, Shah hopes to explain why some genes react the way they do and how they can be shut off to make the wheat more resistant to the fungus.

“We’re hoping that if it works with wheat, then it’s something that barley farmers can use as well,” Shah said. “It’s going to affect other industries—the flour indus­try, the baking industry and food availability. It’s a global disease affecting the U.S., Europe, Australia, China, and they’re all trying to understand how to control it.”

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