MN Impact: Providing Ethiopian scientists and farmers with the tools and knowledge needed to combat wheat stem rust


Wheat is the world’s most widely cultivated crop and contributes roughly one-fifth of the calories in human diets. Since the identification of wheat rust pathogen race Ug99 in the late 1990s, the discovery and breeding of resistant materials has been a priority. It became even more significant when 90-100 percent of wheat in Ethiopia was lost because of a lack of disease resistance in varieties in 2013. 

What has been done

In response to the 2013 and 2014 wheat stem rust epidemics in Ethiopia, a collaborative research and education team formed to study the biology and control of new, dangerous forms of the wheat stem rust pathogen from East Africa and other parts of the world and to provide Ethiopian scientists and farmers with the tools and knowledge needed to combat wheat stem rust.

University of Minnesota researchers, in collaboration with USDA researchers based at the Cereal Disease Lab in St. Paul, MN, were responsible for several research and outreach breakthroughs related to this worldwide effort including: 1) Discovering the 2013-14 Ethiopian stem rust epidemic was caused by TKTTF; 2) Carrying out a genome-wide association study which identified seedling resistance to all three races and SNP markers associated with seedling resistance against races TTKSK, TRTTF and TKTTF; 3) Coordinating scientist training workshops in Ethiopia on wheat diseases; and, 4) Helping to facilitate the deployment of five stem rust nurseries in Ethiopia.


The latter effort quickly led to five wheat varieties being tested for rust resistance in Ethiopia. Among them was ‘Kingbird’, a variety previously released in Kenya for its good disease resistance, good baking quality and high yields.

In May 2015, the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research released ‘Kingbird’ for widespread agricultural use after receiving five tons of seed from plant breeders in Kenya. Researchers at the Kulumsa Agricultural Research Station then coordinated the planting and harvest of 37 hectares at multiple locations, which resulted in 80 tons of ‘Kingbird’ seed being harvested and distributed to Ethiopian farmers.

Since that time through 2018, 35,480 tons of ‘Kingbird’ seed has been produced--half via partnerships with farmers and half via partnerships with public seed enterprises. Based on genotyping of wheat lines in Ethiopian farmers' fields, ‘Kingbird’ was grown on approximately 36,000 hectares (89,000 acres) in 2018 which--based on average farm size--would account for it being grown on over 40,000 farms.

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