Milestone Reached in the Protection of Soybean Crops


RWTH researchers publish their results on the genome of an aggressive harmful fungus in the prestigious academic journal “Nature Communications”


Since 2004, research teams from the Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology at RWTH Aachen University have been looking for strategies to protect the soybean crops worldwide from the Phakopsora pachyrhizi pathogen. The aggressive pathogen causes a disease which, due to its origin and presentation, is called Asian soybean rust. The damaging effect of the fungus, which is already very aggressive in itself, is intensified by climate change. This can lead to devastating yield losses in soybean, which is essential for global food security.

The goal of the two Aachen groups headed by Professors Ulrich Schaffrath and Uwe Conrath is to combat the pathogen based on comprehensive knowledge of the mechanisms that promote – or halt – the course of the disease. “By decoding the genome of this fungus, which with a size of 1.25Gb is one of the largest fungal genomes sequenced to date, a milestone has been reached for the development of future containment strategies,” said Schaffrath. "On the way to this discovery, we had to overcome major obstacles. The crucial information is contained in only seven percent of this gigantic genome. Moreover, it comes in different variants, distributed over two nuclei in each individual fungal cell," explained Conrath. The enormous adaptability of the fungus means that it succeeds in quickly overcoming the resistance properties of new soybean varieties and the effect of plant protection products. This is most likely due to the complexity and flexibility of the genome, which has now been made fully accessible.

This groundbreaking progress was only possible based on extensive and intensive international networking among researchers from Brazil, the USA, France, Great Britain, Switzerland, and Germany. “The outstanding collaboration between universities and industry must also be acknowledged here, without which such a mammoth project would certainly not have been successful,” emphasized Schaffrath.

The consortium is made up of researchers from RWTH, the University of Hoffenheim, 2Blades Foundation, Bayer CropScience, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), the Université de Lorraine, the Joint Genome Institute (JGI), of the US Department of Energy, KeyGene, the Sainsbury Laboratory, Syngenta AG, and the Universidade Federal de Viçosa in Brazil. The group had already released its data to the scientific community in 2019.