Blasting away at wheat blast

You may have seen the press reports about the disease wheat blast, previously restricted to South America, reaching Bangladesh. The more technical news pieces in the likes of Nature make the point that the source was Brazil, but do not always make it as clear as they might what a veritable tour-de-force of international collaboration in pathogenomics it was to get to that conclusion.

It’s of course all thanks to the Open Blast Initiative, an effort to get sequence data on the causal fungus into the public domain as quickly as possible. Their website helpfully provides a handy timeline, which I reproduce with some slight editing below:

  • March 1. First news report of wheat blast in Bangladesh.
  • March 8. Tofazzal Islam and Sophien Kamoun discuss applying field pathogenomics to the wheat blast outbreak.
  • March 16. Tofazzal’s students collect samples from multiple locations in Bangladesh and store them in RNALater.
  • March 23. Field samples are delivered to The Sainsbury Lab in Norwich.
  • March 24-31. RNA extractions and library preparations in the Laboratory of Diane Saunders at TGAC and JIC.
  • April 8. Sequencing completed at TGAC. Thanks to Dan Swan and team for fast-tracking the samples.
  • April 14. Magnaporthe (Pyricularia) oryzae sequences confirmed based on analyses by Antoine Persoons and Joe Win. Similarity to Br32 wheat blast strain noted.
  • April 18. Open Wheat Blast goes live! All sequence data is freely available to use without any restrictions. Nick Talbot’s group at Exeter simultaneously releases the genome sequences of 14 Brazilian wheat blast isolates.
  • April 27. Daniel Croll and Bruce McDonald, ETH Zurich, post in Github an analysis on the origin of wheat blast in Bangladesh. They conclude that the pathogen was most likely introduced from South America.

So, less than two months from the first reports of the disease in Bangladesh to the discovery of where the little blighter came from. Impressive. And we now also have a pre-print out on the taxonomy of the organism involved, which suggests that multiple species are to blame. And that’s started quite a online discussion. A great advertisement for open data, not to mention a more flexible approach to publication and peer review.

The next step, of course, is to look for resistance to the different strains of the pathogen in the world’s wheat genebanks and breeding programmes.

…plant pathologists say that finding one variant is not enough: wheat strains must be bred with multiple genes for resistance, to stop M. oryzae quickly overcoming their defences… “What I would hope for out of this sorry situation … is that there will be a bigger international effort to identify resistance genes.”

Let’s see if the breeders are as fast and open with their international collaboration as the pathologists. Stay tuned.

2 Replies to “Blasting away at wheat blast”

  1. Many thanks for the global scientific community for joining the mission of fighting against the wheat blast, which poses a serious threat to the food and nutritional security of more than 160 million peoples of Bangladesh. Our government highly encouraged us for the application of biotechnology for combating this fearsome disease. Anyone interested in collaborate and support our next mission to save our future wheat crops, please feel free to share your thoughts through Open Wheat Blast website or directly with me (

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