Figueroa receives $499,000 USDA-NIFA Grant to Study Genetic Diversity in Populations of the Oat Crown Rust Fungus
The crown rust disease of oat (Avena sativa) caused by Puccinia coronata f. sp. avenae significantly impacts oat yield and productivity in the U.S. and throughout the world. P. coronata f. sp. avenae ranks among the most diverse pathogenic rust fungi which poses challenges for disease control. Given that the mechanisms underlying genetic diversity and emergence of new virulence traits in rust fungi are not fully understood, Professor Figueroa will examine the contributions of sexual recombination, mutation and other factors to the extreme variability and rapid virulence evolution of P. coronata f. sp. avenae. Figueroa will work with a consortium of scientists at UMN (Professor Cory Hirsch), the USDA-ARS Cereal Disease Laboratory (Research Leader and Professor Shahryar Kianian), the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology (Professor Eva Stukenbrock) in Germany, and Australian institutions CSIRO (UMN Adjunct Professor Peter Dodds) and the University of Sydney (Professor Robert Park) to compare U.S. populations of the pathogen with a clonal population from Australia. This comparative analysis will seek to uncover molecular markers to provide information about pathogen virulence in the field and support genetic resistance deployment. Furthermore, the study aims to inform potential buckthorn eradication programs, as the invasive species Rhamnus cathartica (common buckthorn) serves as host for the pathogen to complete sexual reproduction. Professor Figueroa emphasizes that P. coronata f. sp. avenae can serve as a model species to study mechanisms leading to virulence diversification and evolution in other problematic obligate biotrophic pathogens, such as wheat, coffee and soybean rust.