Improved protection of European wheat against rust diseases is underway

A new European research project will develop a new early warning system to protect wheat against new races of rust.

2018.05.30 | Janne Hansen

It is crucial to be at the forefront with rapid and precise identification of particularly yellow and black rust in wheat, which is Europe's most important agricultural crop. Photo: Mogens Støvring Hovmøller.

Acting with due diligence is sensible in many situations, including prevention of fungal diseases in wheat. With regard to rust diseases in wheat, a rapid and precise identification of emerging races is crucial, followed by investigating the impact of such races on varieties of wheat that are grown in Europe. 

The main goal of a new research project, RustWatch, led by Aarhus University, with participation of 24 partners from 13 European countries, is to develop tools and procedures to improve prevention and control of rust diseases on wheat based on new insights into the biology of the rust pathogens.    

RustWatch, which is a four-year Horizon 2020 project, will establish a new early warning system that will improve preparedness and resilience to new invasive wheat rust races. Rust in wheat has become an increasing problem not only in Europe, but in many parts of the world. 

- It is urgent to be at the forefront with rapid and precise identification of new races of particularly yellow (stripe) rust and black (stem) rust in wheat, which is Europe’s most important crop. In 2016, Europe experienced the most severe epidemics of wheat stem rust for more than 50 years, and the pre-existing population of wheat yellow rust has recently been replaced by invasive races of non-European origin, says the project leader of RustWatch, Professor Mogens Støvring Hovmøller from the Department of Agroecology at Aarhus University. This situation poses great challenges for wheat farmers because rust resistant wheat varieties may turn susceptible within a single or a few years. 

Warning system for all three types of rust on wheat

The project will develop an early warning system for both yellow, black and brown rust in wheat used for food or feed so that the agricultural sector can be prepared and resilient to new wheat rust races. The warning system will consist of shared facilities for identifying rust races and genotypes, and will have stakeholder networks within research, plant breeding, disease control and agricultural advisory services. 

The Global Rust Reference Centre at AU Flakkebjerg, Aarhus University, has a key role in the warning system, in that emerging rust races gathered in Europe can be compared with rust races from other parts of the world. In addition, the rust centre will be responsible for the databases that will handle the large amounts of disease data that the project will collect, and which will be the basis for dissemination of the results to the project partners and end users.     

The warning system will be based on reports, experiences and data from the stakeholders who will participate in disease surveillance and pathogen monitoring, sampling, data exchange, and warning and transfer of knowledge to farmers and other end users.   

RustWatch will develop new diagnostic tools to enable rapid and precise identification of emerging invasive rust races. The project will also investigate the importance of virulence, aggressiveness and adaptation of wheat rust to a warmer climate as drivers for the spread and establishment of new rust races in Europe. 

Regional considerations via case studies

The new warning system for prevention and control of wheat rust will be tested in case studies in five regions, namely Denmark, Great Britain, Italy, Spain and Switzerland. 

These case studies will contribute to development and validation of the early warning systems, and disclose potential obstacles that may restrict the implementation of these. The case studies will also make it possible to investigate the risk of establishment of new invasive rust races on a regional level and propose IPM-based rust prevention and control that is adapted to the agronomic and environmental conditions in the region in question. 

- The research in the project has the potential for a breakthrough in the area of phenotyping of resistance in the host plant, e.g. by categorising resistance responses on the cellular level. This phenotyping is important for being able to use the enormous amounts of genomic sequence information that the new breeding technologies produce, says Mogens Støvring Hovmøller. 

Establishment of trials under quarantine conditions during the autumn and winter will make it possible to test the effects of the new rust races outside the primary growing season. In addition, the project has an agreement with a research facility in Pakistan, where European wheat varieties and breeding material can be tested for resistance to rust in the Himalayas, where the yellow rust pathogen has its centre of genetic diversity.   


Facts about RustWatch

Funding: Granted 5.0 million euros from EU’s Horizon 2020 programme

Partners: 12 universities and research institutions, 5 advisory services, and 7 SME from 13 different countries, including from Denmark Aarhus University, Danish Agriculture and Food Council (Seges), Nordic Seed A/S, and the Tystofte Foundation

Duration: Four years (May 2018-April 2022)

Project management: Department of Agroecology at Aarhus University


The official kick-off of the project will take place in Copenhagen on June 7-8, 2018.


Read more about the project at its website here and here.


For more information please contact:

Professor Mogens Støvring Hovmøller, Department of Agroecology, email: mogens.hovmoller@agro.au.dk, telephone: +45 8715 8129, mobil:e +45 2228 3361

Agro, DCA