A major advancement in controlling Fusarium head blight (FHB) in the world’s wheat crop has recently been announced in the journal Science. The project was a collaborative effort at the Shandong Agricultural University in Shandong, China, and three USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists: Guihua Bai and Lanfei Zhao in Manhattan, Kan., and Steven Xu in Fargo, N.D.

Their work discovered a gene that can be used to develop wheat varieties that will be more resistant to FHB. This disease is a major threat to the worldwide $10 billion annual wheat crop and has resulted in major losses in wheat production in the United States, China, Canada, Europe and several other counties.

FHB, also known as “scab,” also attacks barley and oats and when grown unchecked in infected grains. The disease releases mycotoxins that induce vomiting when consumed by humans, as well as weight loss in livestock when fed to them, since they refuse to eat the grain.

The researchers found that the new gene effectively reduces FHB by detoxifying the mycotoxins secreted by the pathogen. The gene also confers resistance to crown rot, a wheat disease caused by a related pathogen without yield penalty, providing a solution for Fusarium resistance breeding.

The researchers originally identified the gene in Thinopyrum wheatgrass, a wild relative of wheat that has been previously used to develop varieties of wheat with beneficial traits, such as rust resistance and drought tolerance. They cloned the gene and introduced it into seven wheat cultivars with different genetic profiles to study its effects on plants grown under certain field conditions. The results showed that the gene not only conferred resistance to scab in the new plants, but it also had no negative effects on yield or other significant traits.

The prevalence and severity of FHB outbreaks also could potentially be exacerbated by climate change and varying weather conditions, and by an increasing trend toward more corn production and no-till farming, which both may be increasing the prevalence of the pathogen in fields. Growers often must use fungicides to reduce FHB damage.

This research work is being done under USDA’s Science Blueprint, a roadmap to USDA science from 2020-25. This suite of programs, funding and partnerships enable USDA to conduct critical, long-term, broad-scale science and spur innovation throughout the agriculture, natural resource and food systems.

The ARS has a workforce of approximately 8,000 employees, including 2,000 scientists and post docs in 90 plus research locations. ARS’s research mission is to find solutions to agricultural problems that affect Americans every day from field-to-table and includes about 690 research projects within 16 national programs.