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A threat to the world’s wheat

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By Kirsten Peters

If you like eating hotcakes or bread (or my own personal favorite, huckleberry muffins), you might want to pay attention to a problem that’s looming over wheat worldwide. It’s a new type of “stem rust” caused by a fungus that cripples wheat plants.

Throughout history, stem rusts have created major famines. Even in the United States, wheat harvests in parts of the country were hit hard by stem rust in 1903, 1905 and 1950-1954. Localized outbreaks affected American wheat as recently as 1985-1986.  

Throughout the 20th century, agronomists bred better wheat to be more resistant to a variety of fungal threats. They were successful — score a big one for science.

But out there in the wheat fields, there’s always an arms race afoot. As the agronomists did their job, fungus was shaped by random mutations and natural selection. When those two natural forces combined to create a fungus that could successfully live on the new wheat varieties, then the fungus came roaring back in the fields. Score one for natural evolutionary forces and stem rust.