Scientists have announced a breakthrough in work to protect wheat against disease.

Disease cost farmers worldwide millions of pounds in lost and damaged crops but work carried out in the UK promises to improve testing and protection methods. The team from the John Innes Centre (JIC), the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) and the Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) transferred a receptor that recognises bacteria from their model plant Arabidopsis thaliana – a dicot – to wheat. Their work showed that the receptor can trigger a defensive response which enables increased resistance to bacterial disease.

Drs Henk-jan Schoonbeek and Christopher Ridout, the lead and corresponding authors of a paper published on the work, first developed diagnostic tools which test wheat for responses to pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs). PAMPs are often essential parts of fungi or bacteria and without them they would find it difficult to mutate without affecting their own survival. Receptors enable a response to PAMPs. The JIC scientists worked with TSL and the crop transformation team at NIAB to transfer a receptor gene to wheat, which enabled recognition of the widespread bacterial protein EF-Tu, and used their diagnostic tools to show that the receptor was working.

The receptor gene, EFR, works like an antenna that activates defence elements already present in wheat and makes the plants more resistant to bacteria. EFR was first identified by Professor Cyril Zipfel, Head of TSL, a co-author of the paper. Bacterial wheat diseases are widespread in Asia and Africa, and also present in the USA so the work done in the UK could have global applications. The diagnostic tool that has been developed can be used to help breeders screen seed varieties for PAMP recognition and resistance to bacterial pathogens.

Chris Ridout said: “Our work demonstrates the importance of developing this type of resistance in wheat. As the wheat genome is sequenced further and we continue our analysis of receptor genes in dicots, we hope to identify more genes that can be used to develop durable resistance, not only to bacterial diseases, but to the most important fungal pathogens of wheat such as yellow rust, Septoria and powdery mildew.” This research was funded by BBSRC and the  team also received support from Gatsby Charitable Foundation and the Two Blades Foundation