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Gene protects beer crop from nasty fungus

U. QUEENSLAND (AUS) — Finding the gene that gives barley resistance to leaf rust could benefit people who rely on the crop for food and beer.

Researchers have discovered that the gene Rph20 provides resistance to leaf rust in some barley variety adult plants.

“Leaf rust is a fungal disease that could destroy almost a third of the nation’s barley crop,” says Lee Hickey, a research fellow at University of Queensland.

“The discovery will enable selective breeding of barley that will provide genetic protection to the disease. This will result in much lower chemical use, reduced crop losses, and a more reliable grain supply.”

Hickey says the crop disease could also leave Australian beer drinkers thirsty, because the country’s primary use of barley was to make beer, as well as stock feed. “But for areas like North Africa and Southwest Asia it is a food staple,” he says.

Using field trials in Australia and Uruguay, the team was able to identify the specific gene. They then developed a diagnostic DNA marker to determine the presence of the gene.

Using the marker, they traced the gene’s origins to a type of barley first cross-bred in the Netherlands in 1928. Their findings appear in Theoretical and Applied Genetics.

“It was a surprise that we could trace the gene back so far,” Hickey says. “There have been no reports of a strain of leaf rust that has overcome the Rph20 resistance.”

He says his research also shows that the Rph20 gene had resistance to powdery mildew, another devastating barley disease. “It seems to be a key gene in the barley genome,” he says.

Hickey has declined to patent the DNA marker, preferring the information to be freely available to other researchers.

Hickey teamed up with scientists from the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry; the University of Sydne; and Uruguay’s Instituto de Investigacion Agropecaria.

The Grains Research and Development Corporation partially funded the study.

Source: University of Queensland

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