Nytt katastrofevarsel: Ug99

Vi begynner kanskje å bli immune mot katastrofevarslene. HIV har vi en slags kontroll på. SARS har vi glemt. For noen år siden var døde fugler angst-tennende. Klimakatastrofen er i ferd med å gå av mote, og svineinfluensaen slo liksom aldri helt til. Jordskjelv og flodbølger minner oss riktignok om at vi bor på en tynn skorpe som vi overhodet ikke har kontroll over, men den slags skjer ikke hos oss.

Frykten for ukjente virus som angriper mennesker, har alltid vært og vil alltid være lett å vekke. Men hva med frykten for virus som angriper hvete? Lær deg navnet Ug99. Stammer fra Uganda, funnet i Kenya – og en meget alvorlig trussel, ifølge Wired.

 If nothing is done to slow the pathogen, famines could soon become the norm — from the Red Sea to the Mongolian steppe — as Ug99 annihilates a crop that provides a third of our calories. China and India, the world’s biggest wheat consumers, will once again face the threat of mass starvation, especially among their rural poor. The situation will be particularly grim in Pakistan and Afghanistan, two nations that rely heavily on wheat for sustenance and are in no position to bear added woe. Their fragile governments may not be able to survive the onslaught of Ug99 and its attendant turmoil.

These specialists have come to Njoro on this autumn afternoon to study a scourge that is destroying acres of Kenyan fields. The enemy is Ug99, a fungus that causes stem rust, a calamitous disease of wheat. Its spores alight on a wheat leaf, then work their way into the flesh of the plant and hijack its metabolism, siphoning off nutrients that would otherwise fatten the grains. The pathogen makes its presence known to humans through crimson pustules on the plant’s stems and leaves. When those pustules burst, millions of spores flare out in search of fresh hosts. The ravaged plant then withers and dies, its grains shriveled into useless pebbles.

Stem rust is the polio of agriculture, a plague that was brought under control nearly half a century ago as part of the celebrated Green Revolution. After years of trial and error, scientists managed to breed wheat that contained genes capable of repelling the assaults of Puccinia graminis, the formal name of the fungus.

But now it’s clear: The triumph didn’t last. While languishing in the Ugandan highlands, a small population of P. graminis evolved the means to overcome mankind’s most ingenious genetic defenses. This distinct new race of P. graminis, dubbed Ug99 after its country of origin (Uganda) and year of christening (1999), is storming east, working its way through Africa and the Middle East and threatening India and China. More than a billion lives are at stake. “It’s an absolute game-changer,” says Brian Steffenson, a cereal-disease expert at the University of Minnesota who travels to Njoro regularly to observe the enemy in the wild. “The pathogen takes out pretty much everything we have.”

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