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Wheat's Ancient Roots of Viral Resistance Uncovered

The DNA sequence of a gene in wheat responsible for resisting a devastating virus has been discovered, providing vital clues for managing more resistant crops and maintaining a healthy food supply.

Wheat crops across the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Africa are frequently ravaged by  yellow mosaic virus, so there is high demand for  or cultivars that can resist this virus.

Published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study found the  originated in an ancient Mediterranean wild plant relative of wheat.

Study lead researcher University of Melbourne Dr. Mohammad Pourkheirandish said, "This discovery could assist with the development of more resistant wheat cultivars, increase , and reduce the use of harmful fungicides. It also emphasizes the need to preserve biodiversity to protect food supplies."

WYMV reduces grain yield by up to 80%, causing significant economic losses. The virus is hosted and transmitted by a soil-dwelling fungus that colonizes the roots of wheat plants, discoloring wheat leaves, and stunting .

Microscopic fungal spores containing WYMV can live in soil for up to a decade. While fungicides can kill the spores and stop transmission, the fungicide treatment is neither cost-effective nor ecologically sustainable.

"The viable alternative is to selectively breed or genetically engineer wheat with resistance to WYMV," Dr. Pourkheirandish said.

"Before this research, we knew that a dominant gene called Ym2 reduces the impact of WYMV on wheat plants by more than 70%, but we didn't understand how the gene achieved this."

The research team used a technique called positional cloning to locate the Ym2 gene on a chromosome in bread wheat, and found that its DNA sequence codes for a protein of the type known as NBS-LRR. These proteins are "guardians" that detect pathogens and trigger an immune response in plants.

"Now that we know the gene's DNA sequence, we can select breeding lines carrying Ym2 by simply analyzing DNA from a small piece of leaf even without the virus inoculation step," Dr. Pourkheirandish said.

"It will also make it easier to find variants of Ym2 in wild relatives of wheat, which may provide superior disease resistance for further crop improvement."

The DNA of modern wheat is chimeric, meaning its  derives from several ancestral plants through natural interbreeding, or hybridization, followed by selective breeding by humans.

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