Posted by: Jeff | March 4, 2010

The End of the World

Photo: University of Minnesota

It may be nearer than we think:

While languishing in the Ugandan highlands, a small population of P. graminis evolved the means to overcome mankind’s most ingenious genetic defenses. This distinct new race of P. graminis, dubbed Ug99 after its country of origin (Uganda) and year of christening (1999), is storming east, working its way through Africa and the Middle East and threatening India and China. More than a billion lives are at stake.

This is from Wired‘s horrifying investigation into the resurgence of a fungal spore capable of eradicating entire fields of wheat.  Ug99 is an evolutionary advancement over previous P. graminis fungi that ravaged world wheat productions periodically throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, causing famines in both the United States and elsewhere until Norman Borlaug successfully bred a strain of wheat resistant to the parasitic spores.

Borlaug’s discovery ended the threat of the fungus and subsequently saved Mexico from famine.  Eager to capitalize on the security provided by this new modified wheat, Borlaug’s Sr31 wheat was planted by countries over the world, eventually earning him a Nobel Peace Prize for the countless lives he helped save:

The creation of rust-resistant wheat was one of the cornerstone achievements of Borlaug’s Green Revolution, which produced multiple disease-proof, high-yielding crops capable of feeding once-hungry populations. By 1970, stem rust was no longer a threat to nations that relied on wheat as a dietary mainstay. It is impossible to calculate how many lives Sr31 and other disease-resistance genes saved, but hundreds of millions would be a fair guess. Finally able to feed their burgeoning populations, developing countries like India were able to grow and prosper beyond all expectations.

Food security is a tremendous issue throughout the developing world, and one that puts lives at risk even without the specter of fungus-induced famine.  The rapid prolific spread of Ug99 is posed to put millions of lives saved by Borlaug back at risk.  And apparently the fungus is already on the march:

The fungus is also an efficient traveler: A single hectare of infected wheat releases upwards of 10 billion spores, any one of which can cause the epidemic to spread. The circumstances have to be just right, though — the prevailing winds must blow toward an area of wheat cultivation, and the P. graminis spores must survive the airborne journey.

That is precisely what happened in the case of Ug99. Two years after its initial discovery at Kalengyere, the pathogen drifted into the fields of central Kenya, where it caused major losses and wreaked havoc on thousands of subsistence farms. The pathogen’s next stop was Ethiopia, sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest wheat producer, followed by eastern Sudan. (So far, those two countries have escaped major damage thanks largely to dry weather, which tends to hinder P. graminis.) By 2006, the pathogen had hopped over the Red Sea into Yemen, a disturbing migratory milestone. “I look at Yemen as the gateway into the Middle East, into Asia,” says David Hodson, former chief of Cimmyt’s Geographic Information Systems unit and now with the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, where he tracks global wheat rusts.

There is still hope that a resilient strain of wheat can be bred to stave off the danger of Ug99.  But until it is, food security throughout the Middle East and South Asia may become even more precarious.  This, of course, has a large impact on both political stability and poverty as well.  Given that over 1/3 of the world’s caloric intake comes from wheat, these little spores pose an enormous threat to life as we know it.

Also, a terrifying anecdote for more personal reasons:

A quarter mile from the state fairgrounds in St. Paul, where 1.8 million Minnesotans gather each summer to inhale corn dogs and ride the Zipper, there’s a one-story brick structure that could easily be mistaken for a post office. But no dead letters are stored within this building’s vault — only live pathogens.

This is the USDA’s Cereal Disease Laboratory, where 30,000 enemies of wheat, barley, and oats are held captive so their malevolent secrets can be learned. And among these pathogens are numerous samples of Ug99, sent here from nations already infiltrated by the new strain of P. graminis.

The CDL is one of only two labs in the world legally permitted to analyze live P. graminis spores imported from abroad. The critical work of dealing with live cultures takes place for three months each year, December through February. Should any particles of P. graminis escape, the theory goes, they will find no wheat in Minnesota’s frozen fields to infect and will thus perish before causing any lasting damage.

Yikes!  I certainly hope not.



  1. Remember all of Mr. Ryan’s doomsday prophecies and craziness? My favorite one was children were made of dust (not so much a prophecy other than lunacy), however he did believe we would be out of oil in 2008, even though I’m sure this is inevitable, innovation and survival will drive us through.

    Hope you’re doing well!

    • Haha, all I remember about Mr. Ryan are the poems that Tony wrote about him racing a worm to the center of the Earth. I think that originated with one of his stories about volcanos that would destroy the world or something.

      And hopefully you’re right on innovation – you’d think there’d certainly be some future market incentives for the private sector to start looking for alternatives!

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