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Controversial ‘gene drive’ could disarm deadly wheat pathogen


The Fusarium fungus is the bane of every wheat farmer’s existence. Causing wheat scab—also known as head blight—it decimates harvests and contaminates grains with a toxin harmful to people and animals. Now, Australian researchers have come up with a new strategy to combat Fusarium graminearum, the most notorious wheat scab pathogen. In the lab, they have used a genome-altering technology called “gene drive” to get rid of the fungal genes that make this pest so toxic.

The new wheat strategy would be the first use of a gene drive to control a pathogen in plants. The findings are “very enticing” for both plant and human health, says John Leslie, a fungal pathologist at Kansas State University. Yet gene drives have never been deployed outside of the lab and plans to use them to eliminate mosquitoes and other pests have been controversial.

Wheat scab is a growing problem in North America, Europe, and China. Researchers are scrambling to breed wheat resistant to this fungus, with some recent success. Even so, “Disease management is reaching a crossroads,” says Peter Solomon, a molecular plant pathologist at the Australian National University.

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