Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Rust Never Sleeps

Robert Park (right) inspects wheat plots in Ethiopia.

Robert Park (right) inspects wheat plots in Ethiopia.

By Stephen Luntz

The battle against crop diseases is gaining increased attention, and Robert Park plays a leading role in keeping the world fed.

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Prof Robert Park helps to ensure that our shelves stock affordable bread and pasta, standing guard against the diseases and pests that once made food supplies unreliable.

Park is a leader in the fight against wheat rust, a fungus that has historically been the most significant suppressor of wheat production. In 1973 an epidemic of stem rust reduced wheat yields by $200–300 million across south-eastern Australia. “Today something of the same size would cost more than $1 billion dollars,” says Park.

The University of Sydney’s Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, where Park is based, has played a key part in breeding strains of wheat that are resistant to most forms of rust present in Australia, preventing a repetition of the 1973 epidemic.

Park says the importance of resistant strains has been recognised by grain growers, and since the 1950s funding has been available from the industry through the Grains Research and Development Corporation. Initially this required the detection of resistant strains and slow cross-breeding until a resistant, but high yield, variety could be grown commercially.

As time has gone on, however, techniques have advanced. “We can now use genetic markers to identify resistance genes and map their presence in cross-breeds,” says Park. The tools of molecular biology allow faster development of new strains,...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.