PULLMAN – WSU spring wheat breeder Michael Pumphrey is a team leader in a $40 million, global effort to combat UG99, an evolving wheat pathogen that poses a dangerous threat to global food security, especially in developing countries.

Pumphrey will head a group of 17 principal investigators for the “Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat” project being led by Cornell University. The United Kingdom’s Department of International Development will contribute approximately $15 million to the project over the next five years; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will contribute $25 million.
“WSU’s leadership role in this global effort speaks to the overall quality of plant science being conducted here,” said Ralph Cavalieri, associate dean and director of WSU’s Agricultural Research Center. “It is important work that could make a major difference in how we feed the world in years to come. And, what we learn as a result of the project will benefit our own wheat breeding efforts for Washington growers.”
Pumphrey’s team will focus on identifying new sources of resistance to UG99 and then making those sources useful in wheat breeding. His program, and all those on his team, conducts detailed genetics, pathology and molecular marker research and develops superior wheat lines for breeders to use in resistance breeding efforts.
WSU plant pathologist Tim Murray is also working on UG99, primarily on preventing a “homegrown” version of the disease by focusing on a different plant – common barberry. An ornamental plant that settlers carried with them across the United States, barberry is “an essential ingredient in the complicated life of a stem rust fungus – known as Pgt – that could be a precursor to UG99,” Murray said.
In a recent article in Wheat Life Magazine, Murray – along with USDA Agricultural Research Service plant pathologist and rust expert Xianming Chen and WSU Extension agronomist Diana Roberts – said that in addition to wheat or barley, Pgt “requires the common barberry to complete its life cycle.”
“So, although the Pacific Northwest may not be ground zero for stem rust infection, it has been shown to be an incubator for infections that can not only transmit the disease to fields as far away as Minnesota, but can actually produce new races of the stem rust fungus,” the group wrote.
Pumphrey’s project focuses on identifying new stem rust resistant genes in wheat, improving surveillance for the pathogen and multiplying and distributing rust-resistant wheat seed to farmers and their families. Altogether more than 20 leading universities and research institutes throughout the world will participate in the project, along with scientists and farmers from more than 40 countries.
With funding from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Murray, Chen and Roberts have formed a Pacific Northwest Barberry working group to investigate reports of stem rust and barberries and to educate those working in the grain industry about its dangers. Members of that group include state and federal scientists as well as extension educators from Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.