Wheat stem rust (Puccinia graminis f. sp. tritici) is historically the most damaging disease of wheat. The disease has the capacity to turn a healthy looking crop, only weeks away from harvest, into nothing more than a tangle of black stems and shrivelled grains at harvest. Under suitable conditions, yield losses of 70% or more are possible. Wheat stem rust is highly mobile, spreading rapidly over large distances by wind or via accidental human transmission (infected clothing or plant material).
Wheat stem rust has largely been under control for over three decades due to the widespread use of resistant cultivars. In 1999, a new virulent race of stem rust was identified from wheat fields in Uganda – popularly known as Ug99 after the year and country of discovery. Using North American scientific nomenclature, Ug99 is known as race TTKSK. Ug99 (Race TTKSK) is a cause for concern as it exhibits unique virulence patterns. No other race of stem rust has been observed to overcome so many wheat resistance genes, including the very important gene Sr31. By 2007, Ug99 (Race TTKSK) had spread via wind movements out of East Africa, into Yemen and as far as Iran.
Rust pathogens change rapidly, often by mutation. Six additional variants are now recognized in the Ug99 lineage. All exhibit an identical DNA fingerprint, but differ in virulence patterns. Additional important resistance genes e.g., Sr24 & Sr36 have now been defeated by variants of Ug99. Ug99 or variants are considered a major threat to wheat production with an estimated 80-90% of global wheat cultivars susceptible.