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[MEXICO CITY] Two agricultural research organisations have agreed to collaborate on research to combat wheat diseases and develop climate change-resistant wheat varieties.

The agreement, between the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, was signed last week (4 December).

Jointly funded by the two centres, the US$3 million, three-year project comprises a shared breeding initiative to create new wheat varieties that tolerate heat and drought — helping farmers face climate change — and resist major wheat diseases.

Research will be carried out at both centres, as well as other sites around the world.

The project will involve screening several thousand wheat samples, provided by both centres, for useful traits — particularly against a new strain of stem wheat rust, Ug99. Stem rust is caused by a parasitic fungus and devastates crops.

Traditional plant breeding techniques will be used to create suitable varieties. Molecular markers — specific DNA segments containing genes associated with desired characteristics — will be used to trace characteristics through generations.

"Of particular concern is the new, virulent strain of stem rust, Ug99, which appeared in eastern Africa eight years ago but has since moved on to the Middle East and could soon threaten the vast wheat lands of Asia," said Masa Iwanaga, director-general of CIMMYT, in a press release.

"Both parties see an urgent need to screen thousands of wheat lines to identify ones that resist the new rust race."

Researchers hope to have a wheat variety resistant to Ug99 by the end of the project, according to Mike Listman, from the communications department at CIMMYT.

"The project is the continuation of collaboration activities that already exist between both institutions," he told SciDev.Net.

Partnerships between China and CIMMYT go back three decades. More than 200 Chinese scientists have taken part in training and joint research with CIMMYT.

Around four million hectares in China are sown with wheat varieties derived from CIMMYT plants, and Chinese breeding stocks and partnerships have improved the disease resistance of CIMMYT-derived varieties grown around the world.