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Source: Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) [summ. Mod.DHA, edited]

The Zambia Agriculture Research Institute (ZARI) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) have partnered to combat the wheat blast disease which has broken out in Zambia. The outbreak of the disease is affecting smallholder farmers in the country who depend on rainfed agriculture, hampering wheat productivity. Wheat is an important cereal crop in Zambia, second to maize, hence the need to safeguard it from pests and diseases.

Wheat varieties suitable for smallholder farmers and Zambia's climatic conditions are also being developed.

[Byline: Joshua Jere]
Communicated by:
[Both wheat and rice blast are caused by the fungus _Pyricularia oryzae_ (synonym _Magnaporthe oryzae_). Although the pathogens are currently classified as the same species, the wheat blast pathogen is a distinct population (referred as _P. oryzae_ Triticum population) and does not cause disease in rice. More than 50 species of grasses and sedges can be affected by related fungal strains, each of which generally appears to affect only a limited number of host species. Further work is needed regarding genotypic differentiation related to host range, including differences between the wheat and rice pathovars. Rice blast is one of the most destructive diseases of rice worldwide. Wheat blast is now considered an emerging disease and a threat to global food security (see also ProMED post 20210324.8267471).

Blast symptoms on wheat (and barley) may be confused with fusarium head blight (see previous ProMED posts in the archives and link below) and include necrotic leaf spots, bleaching of ears, shriveled kernels and no seed production at all for severe infections. Yield losses seem to average 40% to 50%, but cases of 100% losses have also been reported; wheat production in some affected areas has ceased.

Humid and warm conditions favour disease development, but the life cycle of the fungus is still unknown. Spread of the rice pathogen occurs with infected plant material (including seed), mechanical means (including human and insect activity), water and wind. It is likely that the wheat pathogen is spread in similar ways. Disease management of rice blast may include fungicides and cultural practices but relies mainly on resistant varieties. Available wheat cultivars lack resistance to wheat blast and only limited tolerance can be found. Resistance breeding is difficult because the fungus is highly variable which favours the emergence of new strains with increased virulence.

Wheat blast was identified in 1985 in southern Brazil and spread in the Americas. Initially, it was thought to be caused by a fungal strain which crossed from rice to wheat, but is now considered more likely to have originated from local wild grasses. In Asia, the disease was found for the first time in 2016 in Bangladesh (ProMED post 20160411.4150953) and subsequently spread. The disease in Asia is now considered to be due to introduction of the fungus with grain. This would suggest a similar way of introduction of the disease to Africa and stress again the importance of strict quarantine measures and biosecurity protocols for the international movement of any kind of plant material.

In addition, it is expected that, due to climate change, wheat blast will continue to spread in countries that were previously only slightly impacted and will also penetrate countries that were previously untouched. Spread of the fungus could reduce global wheat production by 13% by 2050, with up to 75% of total wheat acreage affected regionally (ProMED post 20240207.8714710).

Blast symptoms on wheat:, and
Barley head with blast symptoms:
For comparison, fusarium head blight symptoms on wheat:
Rice blast:

Information on wheat blast:,,,, and
Reviews: and
Origin of wheat blast for Asia:
Wheat blast genotyping data via:
Information on rice blast: (with pictures) and
_P. oryzae_ taxonomy and synonyms: and
- Mod.DHA


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