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Resilience, resistance and reduction in fungicides – The Sainsbury Laboratory demonstrates how it can be done

Meet the Network
Agri-TechE

About The Sainsbury Laboratory 

The Sainsbury Laboratory is a world-leading research institute working on the science of plant-microbe interactions. It deploys the latest technologies to combat plant diseases and accelerate crop improvement. Discoveries in fundamental research translate to scientific solutions that tackle crop losses caused by existing and emerging plant diseases, particularly in low-income countries. These solutions support the Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger.

In 2009 researchers first reported a novel gene for combatting potato late blight. Since then they have added two more, and were able to show that these genes are effective under field conditions. At the 2017 Innovation Hub researchers showed their initial work – this work has advanced significantly.

In 2016 a trio of studies from The Sainsbury Laboratory appeared in Nature Biotechnology, demonstrating the potential of developing disease resistance in three globally important crops: soybeans, potatoes and wheat. Two of these projects were supported by the 2Blades Foundation and the Laboratory has continued to engage with key industry partners to ensure that this technology reaches growers.

Increasing resilience to rust – soybean 

Asian soybean rust is caused by the fungus Phakopsora pachyrhizi and can lead to up to 80% loss in soybean yield. Increasing genetic resistance to fungicides and the huge costs associated with disease control emphasises the need for a more robust and sustainable solution. Currently the cost of disease management and yield loss is two billion dollars a year, and soybean crops rely on three to four fungal sprays a season to keep infections under control. By transferring a resistance gene from the orphan legume pigeon pea to soybeans, scientists at The Sainsbury Laboratory were able to create lines of soybean that were substantially more resistant to this fungal disease.

Unlocking resistance – wheat and barley

The stem rust fungus Puccinia graminis f. sp tritici infects economically important cereal crops, such as wheat and barley. In the last decade we have seen an increasing frequency of outbreaks, along with the evolution of more virulent races. Wheat varieties in the UK are highly susceptible to this disease and as temperatures increase in the UK due to climate change, the risk of stem rust re-establishing becomes even higher. The bread wheat genome is notoriously complex consisting of three genomes that evolved from three different grass species.

TSL 2blades
Photo taken by Andrew Davis, John Innes Centre

These genomes can interact in a way that suppresses resistance to stem rust, making the plant more susceptible to disease. By identifying and isolating a gene on the wheat D-genome that is supressing this resistance, scientists at The Sainsbury Laboratory are making headway on the potential to unlock reservoirs of inherent resistance genes and develop more resistant wheat varieties.

Jonathan Jones group - potatoes
Infection with Phytophthora infestans in the field destroys currently used potato varieties but not the Rpi-vnt1 immune receptor engineered plants. Photo taken by Andrew Davis, John Innes Centre.

Reducing loss in the supply chain – potatoes

Potato late-blight is caused by the fungus-like microorganism, Phytophthora infestans. This plant pathogen triggered the Irish potato famine in the 1840s. Today, UK farmers are still battling this devastating crop disease, and depend on 15-20 fungicidal sprays per year to keep it under control. The Sainsbury Laboratory has developed a Maris Piper variety that is not only blight-resistant, but also resistant to tuber blight during storage. This PiperPlus potato incorporates three resistance genes from wild potato relatives. By combining different resistance genes, they can protect each other from being overcome by mutations that would allow the pathogen to evade their detection. This means that all these genes continue to stay effective in protecting the plant from diseases in the long term.

In addition to blight resistance, the PiperPlus potato has added qualities of reduced cold sugar formation and reduced bruising which will cut down on yield losses in the supply chain. Researchers at The Sainsbury Laboratory are now generating PiperPlus lines that also carry potato virus Y resistance and elevated nematode resistance.

Researchers at The Sainsbury Laboratory are now generating PiperPlus lines that also carry potato virus Y resistance and elevated nematode resistance. By combining different genes and modes of action there is less of an opportunity for pathogens to become resistant to any single gene. This enables gene stewardship, which means that these valuable resistance genes continue to stay effective over time. The PiperPlus potato is an excellent example of how stacking different genes can confer durable blight resistance.

The future 

Many of the research projects conducted at The Sainsbury Laboratory have provided evidence that engineering disease resistance in crops can reduce several agricultural challenges associated with plant pathogens. If resistant varieties of crops were available for stem rust, late blight and soybean rust it would not only save millions of pounds in annual yield loss, but also drastically reduce the amount of fungicides needed in agriculture, thus making a major contribution to more sustainable crop production.


The Sainsbury Laboratory is appearing in the Innovation Hub at the 2023 Royal Norfolk Show.
Read more about the 2023 Innovation Hub >>

Innovation Hub 2023