Researchers in the School of Biosciences at the University of Exeter are studying the devastating rice blast disease, which each year destroys enough rice to feed 60 million people. The disease, caused by a fungus, occurs throughout rice-growing regions of the world and has recently caused epidemics in Korea and China. This 'plant pathogen', known scientifically as Magnaporthe grisea, is the most serious disease of cultivated rice. Therefore knowledge gained about this fungus can be applied to a disease of critical importance to the global food supply.
Exeter researchers were part of the international team which first sequenced the genome of the rice blast fungus in 2006 and they have now used next generation DNA sequencing facilities at Exeter to compare the genomes of isolates of the fungus from around the world. Professor Nick Talbot who leads the research said "We are trying to find out what makes this fungus special in being able to cause such an aggressive disease. By comparing strains with different virulence, we can learn more about the precise genes which allow disease to occur."
The Exeter group have also developed new high throughput methods to study rice blast disease using targeted gene knockouts. This method precisely deletes a single gene from the fungus, allowing its role to be investigated. The research, published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, is a major breakthrough in studying the disease process. "By harnessing the power of genomic research, we can rapidly develop a detailed understanding of rice blast disease and use this to guide new strategies for its control" said Professor Talbot.