Under attack by a cereal killer: the hunt for disease susceptibility factors


Wheat rusts are a continual global threat to wheat production, with the potential to cause total crop loss in untreated susceptible varieties. Traditionally the most effective means of controlling wheat rust has been deployment of resistant wheat varieties, through integration of partial or race-specific resistance genes. However, these race-specific resistance genes are easily overcome by small genetic changes in the pathogen’s effector repertoire. As an alternative, disrupting the function of host genes that play essential roles in pathogen colonization (i.e., susceptibility factors) can act as a more durable form of host resistance. The best-known example is loss of function of the mildew-resistance locus (Mlo) in barley, which enhances powdery mildew resistance and has been widely manipulated in breeding pipelines.

We recently identified a number of wheat genes linked to rust susceptibility that have great potential to act as new sources of non-race-specific resistance. The aim of this project will be to functionally characterise these genes and their role during pathogen ingress. The student will work in partnership between the JIC and Limagrain UK Ltd to (i) evaluate the expression of a number of these genes during rust infection, (ii) determine their function through gene manipulation, (iii) assess their role during progression of rust disease, and (iv) assess their utility in plant breeding.

This CASE studentship will provide a unique opportunity to join a multi-disciplinary research programme in the Saunders Lab at JIC and develop skills in plant pathology, cell biology, wheat genetics and basic computational biology. The student will also spend a minimum of 3 months at Limagrain UK Ltd and join a cohort of PhD students across the UK that are collectively working on research projects with leading UK wheat breeders to address the issue of breeding wheat for reduced on-farm inputs in ever changing environments.


Corredor-Moreno P., Minter F., Davey P.E., Wegel E., Kular B., Brett P., Lewis C.M., Morgan Y.M.L., Macías Pérez L.A., Korolev A.V., Hill L., Saunders D.G.O. (2021) The branched-chain amino acid aminotransferase TaBCAT1 modulates amino acid metabolism and positively regulates wheat rust susceptibility. The Plant Cell, 5: 1728-1747.

Lewis C.M., Persoons A., Bebber D.P., Kigathi R.N., Maintz J., Findlay K., et al. *Wulff B.B.H., *Saunders D.G.O. (2018) Potential for re-emergence of wheat stem rust in the United Kingdom. Communications Biology 1(1): 13. *Co-Corresponding.