Using research to fight Fusarium head blight

By Lauren Comin, Director of Research

Reducing the impacts of Fusarium head blight (FHB) has long been a priority for the Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions. The commissions collaborate with funding partners across Canada to support research that will provide producers with protection from the negative consequences of infection from several angles.

As with any pest, for Fusarium graminearum, and other causal agents of FHB within Fusarium species, an integrated management approach is recommended (see the website for more details). Our investment approach has likewise supported projects which provide multiple management options.

Genetic approaches

Once a disease is established in an area, farmers should consider choosing varieties with strong resistance packages. Unfortunately, the integration of FHB resistance into bread wheat has been challenging. Durum wheat has proven to be an even greater challenge to researchers.

Despite challenges, scientists are exploiting every tool and technique available to them to increase genetic resistance to the disease. The commissions have funded upstream projects looking at developing markers to better detect the presence of resistance genes to supporting nurseries where potential varieties are tested in environments conducive to infection to see how well they fare.

Some of the current and completed upstream and genetics projects include:

Dr. Dilantha Fernando and Dr. Xiben Wang: The population structure of Fusarium pathogens of small grain cereals, their distribution and relationship to mycotoxins. 

Dr. Nora Foroud: Expansion of in vitro selection to develop FHB and leaf spot resistant wheat and barley. 

Dr. Dean Spaner: Genetics and improvement of Fusarium head blight resistance in Canadian spring wheat. 

Dr. W.G. Legge: Developing barley germplasm with improved resistance to Fusarium head blight for Western Canada. 

Dr. Aaron Beattie: Phenotyping and genomic selection for improved barley Deoxynivalenol (DON) resistance. 

Dr. Yuefeng Ruan: Breeding improved Canada Western Amber Durum cultivars. 

Dr. Harpinder Singh Randhawa: Development of field-ready cultivars of Canada Western Soft White Spring (CWSWS) wheat.

Agronomic management approaches

While choosing varieties that are resistant to disease is a good first line of defense, it is imperative to support genetics with agronomic techniques which will deter infection and spread. Without proper management of genetics, we run the risk of resistance genes becoming ineffective against the pathogen.

Agronomic techniques for FHB prevention can include chemical control, cultural control, mechanical control and biological control. In addition, the commissions have provided funding towards surveillance and monitoring and the development of risk assessment tools to aid in decision making.

Some of the current agronomy projects include:

Dr. Kelly Turkington: Investigating crop management options to lessen the impact of Fusarium head blight in wheat. 

Dr. Michael Harding: Fusarium graminearum in Alberta wheat and corn: how bad is it really? 

Dr. Xiujie Susie Li: Development of a biosensor for Fusarium head blight forecasting in wheat. 

Dr. Andrea Laroche: Development of a multiplex RT-immuno PCR assay and biosensor for the early detection of airborne fungal spores in cereal crops. 

Dr. Kelly Turkington: Reducing the impact of Fusarium head blight in barley through in-crop management strategies. 

Dr. Sheri Strydhorst: Revisiting the value of early fungicide applications in wheat.