Wheat is a staple crop of the world’s population, particularly because it is the main component of bread. So what would happen if all the wheat was killed off by a fungus? It may sound like a story out of science fiction, but wheat stem rust, a common fungus in wheat crops, is already threatening the world’s supply.
Wheat stem rust is extremely resilient with a constantly evolving genome, which means that becoming immune to it is difficult. In fact, only 10 percent of world’s supply of wheat is resistant to it, while the other 90 percent is under threat of rotting. The newest strain of rust is known as Ug99, and it was first discovered in Uganda in 1999.
Rust can be compared to the influenza virus because it adapts quickly. When one method of destroying the fungus is invented, it will in turn evolve to become immune and attack again. Therefore, rust may become a global pandemic if we can’t come up with the proper deterrent for the different strains.
GMOs may be a solution to the threat of rust because it allows scientists to create wheat crops that are completely resistant to fungi. However, strong public opposition to the use of genetically modified organisms has slowed the process of developing rust-resistant wheat. Scientists still remain doubtful, though, that a wheat crop will ever remain truly resistant to rust due to its adaptive nature.