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Renowned Australian cereal rust scientist visits UFS

November 2019: Compiled by Willem Boshoff and Botma Visser

Professor Robert Park, Head of Cereal Rust Research at the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) at the University of Sydney, visited Dr Willem Boshoff and Prof Botma Visser from the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of the Free State during October. Rust researchers at the two Institutions have been involved in many collaborative projects in the past and through this visit, these ties were strengthened. During his visit, he gave a talk entitled “Approaching 100 years of cereal rust research at the University of Sydney; lessons learnt and the way ahead”.

Over the past 31 years, Prof Park established a very successful cereal rust research program at the PBI and currently has 40 staff members under his supervision. His research mandate include the monitoring of several cereal rust populations in Australia, the development and release of rust resistant wheat, rye, oat and barley varieties and the cloning of rust resistance genes from these crops.

From left to right Prof Botma Visser, Prof Robert Park and Dr Willem Boshoff

During his talk, Prof Park emphasised that while the continuous evolution of local rust races into more virulent races remains a problem in Australia, a bigger threat is the introduction of exotic rust isolates that are genetically distinct. It is often difficult to accurately determine the exact origin of these incursions and they often had a bigger impact on wheat production than the local races that mostly evolve through single step mutations. These new incursions often carry more complex virulence factor combinations than the local races, thereby simultaneously rendering many cultivars susceptible. Predicting the appearance of these exotic incursions and the virulence factors they might carry, is almost impossible when considering anticipatory resistance breeding strategies. New incursions may result from human interventions such as pathogen spores sticking to travellers’ clothes.

Prof Park stressed that understanding the genetics of both the pathogens (such as how a pathogen takes over the metabolic processes of its host) and their hosts is important to manage cereal rust pathogens. Despite many challenges, they have been fairly successful with breeding for rust resistance and he estimated that this saves AUD$ 1.04 billion per year through genetic resistance. The application of new technologies like “Pathogenomics” is improving the global surveillance of rusts and assists in unravelling the molecular basis of host pathogen interactions. Advances through resistance gene cloning provide high throughput diagnostic markers for gene pyramiding which further opens the possibility of cis- and transgenic approaches.

Prof Park concluded that “as researchers we must ensure the continued translation of research outputs to the field to help farmers.” It was a great pleasure to host Prof Park and we are looking forward to further collaborate with his group to the benefit of local farmers and consumers.

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