Office of Undergraduate Education

News - Research on Stem Rust

August 09, 2012

MEDIA CONTACT: Jared Brickman, Communications Assistant, University College at WSU, 509-335-8070,

SOURCE: Shelley Pressley, Director, Undergraduate Research Program, University College at WSU, 509-335-5443,

Student Helps WSU to Stem the Tide of Wheat “Rust”

, Wash. — Rust on wheat may sound outlandish, but this reddish bane of agriculture, which is actually a type of fungus, has been around since the days of the Roman Empire, when a festival called Robigalia was held to sacrifice dogs in return for the protection of grain fields from disease.

Fast-forward a few thousand years, and wheat is still under attack from multiple types of wheat rust.  One in particular, stem rust, is the focus of research at Washington State University.

The aim of some students in the lab of Scot Hulbert, professor of plant pathology, is to silence, or suppress, certain genes in the fungus that causes stem rust.  That knowledge can then be applied to the wheat, effectively inoculating it.

“Honestly, I didn’t think it would work at first,” Hulbert said.  “Researchers still don’t know that much about the stem rust genome, so it still surprises us.  But the results we have are favorable.”

Some of those results come from Naeh Klages-Mundt, an undergraduate from Minnesota’s Carleton College who was at WSU for the summer as part of a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program.  This opportunity stems from a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant awarded to plant genomics and biotechnology research garnered by Amit Dhingra, professor of horticulture at WSU.
Klages-Mundt in the Lab

Klages-Mundt in the lab

Three other REU programs at WSU this summer took place in: Regional Atmospheric Chemistry, Introduction to Multi-Scale Engineering, and Characterization of Advanced Materials.

“When I read about the plant genomics program online at the NSF REU website, I found each of the research areas interesting,” explains Klages-Mundt.  “This specific area of research on wheat excited me because of the potential to work in genetics.  It kind of reminded me of an arms race.”

This genetics arms race between plant and fungus has kept agricultural scientists working around the clock to find ways to slow down stem rust.

“This is a global problem” Hulbert says.  “With outbreaks in Uganda and Kenya, there are a lot of people working on it right now.  It’s a matter of food security.”

When stem rust spores land on wheat, they form something similar to a blister on the outer layer of the stalk.  Klages-Mundt adds that this fungus invades cells in the plant and deprives it of nutrients.  This leads to major losses in wheat yield, as plants no longer have the nutrients to grow properly or pass on as much seed.  If this occurs early enough in a season, the entire crop can be destroyed.

“So we have to intervene,” says Klages-Mundt. 

Klages-Mundt began his research with Hulbert by looking through a long list of genes in the fungus genome.  He then picked five that looked promising due to their properties.  Then it was a matter of amplifying those genes to see if they affected the virulence of the rust.  Those genes that do have an impact can then be expressed in plants to create a defensive tool.

“It’s a GMO (genetically modified organism) approach,” Hulbert says, “which might bother some people.  But it would allow us to farm with fewer pesticides, secure yields, and be far more sustainable with crops.  We’re still not sure how far we can take this, but it looks very promising.”

The research is ongoing, with physical attempts still being grown.  Due to the short nature of a summer program, Klages-Mundt won’t be able to see through his research in its entirety.

“The hardest part is leaving in the middle of it all,” says Klages-Mundt.  “The really interesting stuff just started happening.”

Klages-Mundt says he will stay in touch with the research team to hear about the continuation and outcome of their work.  He counts the summer REU as an excellent bit of preparation for how work in a lab is done.

“This was my first experience in a formal lab setting,” says Klages-Mundt.  “It’s shown me how everything works and gotten me interested in the hands-on, applied side of science.”

As for Hulbert, he says the summer REU is a great tool for raising awareness and interest in agricultural science.

“I just find it fun to meet young people interested in science,” says Hulbert.  “We just don’t see very many focused on research – they all want to go to medical school.  The REU can help us get them jacked up about our field.”

Hulbert has been with WSU since 2006 when he was named the R. James Cook Endowed Chair in Cropping Systems Pathology.  He earned his undergraduate degree in horticulture from WSU in 1979 and his master’s and doctorate at University of California at Davis.  Hulbert Hall on the WSU campus is named after his grandfather, former WSU Regent James H. Hulbert.

A junior biology major from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., Klages-Mundt will travel to Australia in the winter trimester to study coastal ecology.  His goal is to continue doing biology-related research in graduate school.

Klages-Mundt’s work was presented at the 2012 Undergraduate Research Poster Symposium on August 3 along with more than 50 other projects completed by members of this and other summer research experiences.  To view the event abstract booklet or learn more about opportunities like the REU, visit

Hulbert and Mundt

Scot Hulbert and
Naeh Klages-Mundt


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