Morocco Collaboration to Boost Wheat Research, Grad Study Opportunities

Wheat variety test samples
Plant scientists Fatiha Bentata of Morocco and Intissar Zarrouk of Tunisia screened these wheat samples for resistance to root rot caused by the Fusarium fungus as part of greenhouse research at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln last fall. The scientists, visiting the university through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Scientific Exchanges Program, analyzed 13 wheat varieties grown in Nebraska for disease resistance. At left are non-inoculated control plants. At right is a soil mix inoculated with isolates of the Fusarium fungus. (Photo courtesy IANR Media)

Morocco Collaboration to Boost Wheat Research, Grad Study Opportunities

Nebraska and Morocco are separated by 4,700 miles, but their agricultural sectors share an important connection. Whether in America’s mid-section or northwest coastal Africa, wheat producers know that fungus-borne plant disease, including root rot and head blight, can devastate their production.

It was only a few years ago, in 2015, that head blight reached “epidemic” levels for a significant portion of Nebraska’s wheat fields, noted Stephen Wegulo, a University of Nebraska–Lincoln plant pathologist specializing in wheat disease epidemiology and management.

The university is pursuing an international collaboration with Morocco that can boost wheat disease research and strengthen prevention strategies against fungus-enabled wheat diseases. The partnership also can open opportunities for student exchanges to prepare Moroccan and American graduate students for careers in plant science.

Wegulo, a professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and Nebraska Extension specialist, visited Morocco this spring, meeting with researchers and leaders with the country’s National Institute for Agricultural Research.

Fungus-enabled plant diseases such as root rot, crown rot and head blight raise serious concerns for wheat producers worldwide, said Wegulo, who devotes extensive research to the Fusarium genus of fungus associated with those diseases.

Fusarium head blight, for example, “is a very serious disease in terms of reducing the yield and then causing the grain to be unfit for human and animal consumption” due to fungal production of harmful byproducts known as mycotoxins, he said. In the United States, grain elevators reduce payment once the mycotoxin level exceeds a certain threshold and will reject the wheat entirely if the mycotoxin presence far exceeds the federally designated limit.

“So the grower loses in multiple ways” when Fusarium head blight strikes, Wegulo said.

Research into wheat disease epidemiology and management is also important for Morocco, where grains such as wheat and barley are the No. 1 agricultural product, and the country’s population is heavily dependent on cereals as a food source. Yet the yield reduction and mycotoxin contamination from wheat diseases is significant in Morocco, undercutting the country’s agricultural productivity and harming public health.

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