Using mathematical modelling to curtail the threat of wheat stem rust in the UK


The “polio of agriculture” wheat stem rust is experiencing a resurgence after many decades of absence in western Europe. With over 80 % of current UK wheat varieties susceptible (Lewis et al., 2018), this illustrates the significant threat to wheat production that stem rust would pose if it became re-established in the UK.

The causal pathogen (Puccinia graminis f. sp. tritici; Pgt) is complex, undergoing asexual reproduction on cereal crops and completing sexual reproduction through infection of an unrelated shrub, Berberis. To date, wheat rust research has predominantly focused on the asexual cycle. This is despite the crucial role spore dispersal and subsequent infection of Berberis plays in leading to the creation of the only source of in-country stem rust inoculum at the beginning of the wheat season in temperate zones.

The aim of this project is to evaluate the role of the Pgt sexual cycle in temperate zones such as the UK in facilitating stem rust infection, using predominantly a computational approach. The student will undertake a comparative transcriptomic study to assess disease progression and generate basic biological data to support the development of a detailed spore dispersal model that can be used in real-time to classify high risk Berberis bushes under prevailing environmental conditions. Mathematical modelling will be used for predicting disease spread and this approach will ultimately enable the identification of high risk Berberis bushes that require careful monitoring and inform policy in this area. This project provides a unique opportunity to join two leading multidisciplinary research teams (Saunders & Morris Labs) at the John Innes Centre, a center of excellence in plant and microbial science.


Orton E., Lewis C.M., Davey P.E., Radhakrishnan G.V., *Saunders D.G.O. (2019) Stem rust (Puccinia graminis) identified on spring barley in the UK adjacent to infected Berberis vulgaris. New Disease Reports.

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

Saunders D.G.O., Pretorius Z.A., Hovmøller M.S. (2019) Tackling the re-emergence of wheat stem rust in Western Europe. Communications Biology 2(1): 51.