In 2012, the damp winter threatened the wheat harvest in the state of Kansas, the nation’s single largest producer of the grain and wheat prices rose by 10 percent as a result.
Diseases such as tan spot caused by the fungus Pyrenophoratritici-repentis (Ptr) factored into the reduced wheat harvests. In North Dakota, which ranks second after Kansas in wheat production, tan spot and other diseases can reduce the crop by 10-15 percent annually. To get an idea of the economic impact of this loss, in 2010, the direct cash value of the state’s wheat crop was $2.2 billion, and generated an additional $4.5 billion in indirect commercial activity.
Due to the disease’s impact not just on wheat but other grasses that could be used as biomass feedstocks for biofuels production, Ptr genomes were sequenced and analyzed by an internal consortium including DOE Joint Genome Institute researchers. The findings appeared in the January 2013 issue of G3: Genomes, Genomes, Genetics and the work is part of a larger community effort to help understand the plant pathogens belonging to the Dothideomycetefamily.
The team’s analysis indicates that the fungus has a highly-adaptable genome that allows the influx of transposable elements (TEs), segments of DNA that can change their locations in a genome and even move to other genomes, increasing the pathogenicity of Ptr, in part accounting for its increased impact in recent decades. “In fact, the ways in which TEs can affect the structure and evolution of individual genes appear to be almost unlimited,” the team wrote.