Norwich scientists’ breakthrough will benefit South American soya farmers

Asian soybean rust is a devastating disease affecting one of the world's most important food crops.

Asian soybean rust is a devastating disease affecting one of the world's most important food crops. Picture: Peter van Esse - Credit: Peter van Esse

Norwich scientists have claimed a 'critical' breakthrough in the battle against a disease which is devastating one of the world's most important food crops.

The Sainsbury Laboratory, on the Norwich Research Park, is part of an international research collaboration which has successfully assembled the complete genetic sequence of the fungus that causes Asian soybean rust.

In favourable humid conditions, the disease can destroy up to 90pc of the soybean harvest and the threat is most severe in the major growing areas of Latin America, where farmers must protect their crops with chemical fungicides - which the pathogen is becoming resistant to.

The largest producer of soybean is Brazil, where the combined cost of losses and disease control measures is estimated at US $2bn per season.

But now researchers have produced three genome sequences of the complex fungal pathogen, one of which has been assembled at "chromosome level detail", which could pave the way for the breeding and engineering of disease-resistant crops.

Dr Peter van Esse, leader of the 2Blades Group at The Sainsbury Laboratory, said: "Asian soybean rust is a critical challenge for soybean growers.

"A chromosome level genome assembly allows the scientific community to study, in unprecedented resolution, components of the pathogen that are critical for causing disease. This is a critical first step towards the design of transformative control strategies to combat this highly damaging pathogen."

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Although soybeans are a key ingredient in many meat and dairy substitutes, the main driver for their huge global production - estimated at 346 million tonnes per year - is as animal feed for farm livestock.

The crop is slowly growing in popularity in East Anglia, but Dr van Esse said soybean rust is unlikely to become a problem in the UK so the new genome data is "mainly a tool where the disease is present", such as in South America.

Scientists said the fungus which causes soybean rust, named Phakopsora pachyrhizi, has one of the largest genomes of all plant pathogens, composed of 93pc repetitive elements and possessing two nuclei. This complexity meant high-end, nex-generation sequencing technologies were needed to complete the task.

The international consortium behind the project comprised 11 partners: The 2Blades Foundation, KeyGene, the Joint Genome Institute (JGI), Bayer, Syngenta, the Brazilian Company of Agricultural Research (Embrapa), l'Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA - France), the German Universities of Hohenheim and RWTH Aachen, The Sainsbury Laboratory, and the Federal University of Viçosa (Brazil).

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