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[CAIRO] Egypt is ready to test new varieties of wheat resistant to a lethal rust, with a series of pilot projects set to launch countrywide.

The 90 projects will involve planting the strains locally to test them in different soil types. Farmers will receive guidelines on what to do if the country becomes affected by the fungus, Ug99, whose virulence has caused global concern (see Deadly wheat disease 'a threat to world food security').

To overcome the significant threat of infection, Egypt has successfully bred Misr 1 and Misr 2, two breeds of wheat that are resistant to Ug99.

The Egyptian Agricultural Research Center began research into the two resistant strains in 2005, funding from the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI), Sami R. S. Sabry, deputy director of Field Crops Research Institute, Egypt, told SciDev.Net.

In addition to being fungus-resistant, BGRI stipulated that any new crop varieties should be higher yielding than other varieties.

 "Not all resistant strains produce a significant [higher] yield, but Misr 1 and Misr 2 have successfully combined resistance to Ug99 and high yield production, reaching seven tonnes per hectare," Sabry said. The output of previous strains ranged from 6.5 to 6.8 tonnes per hectare.

"Measures are being taken to prevent the spread of disease," said Sabry. "We are trying to protect ourselves and the whole region by protecting our borders from the spread of the fungus."

Egypt has cultivated 40 tonnes of Misr 1 and Misr 2. Of this, 1.5 tonnes has been exported to Afghanistan at no cost. The country is also working with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Mexico, which supplied the pilot strains for research.

Ug99 was discovered in Uganda in 1999 and spread quickly to Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan. Its spores have also blown to Afghanistan, Iran and Yemen. There are concerns that the Middle East will be infected next.

The fungus mutates often but scientists hope that the two resistant varieties will provide a double barrier against infection.

"There isn't a great difference between varieties but they serve as a safeguard, in case one variety becomes susceptible to the fungus," said Sabry.