The United Kingdom's Department for International Development (DFID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that they will invest $40 million in a global project led by Cornell to combat deadly strains of Ug99, an evolving wheat pathogen that poses a dangerous threat to global food security, particularly in the poorest nations of the developing world.

The five-year grant to the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project at Cornell will support efforts to identify new stem rust-resistant genes in wheat, improve surveillance, and multiply and distribute rust-resistant wheat seed to farmers and their families.

"We cannot overstate the importance of this for addressing the causes of poverty, hunger and disease in the developing world," said Ronnie Coffman, Cornell professor of plant breeding and genetics and director of DRRW. "Against the backdrop of rising food prices, and wheat in particular, researchers worldwide will be able to play an increasingly vital role in protecting wheat fields from dangerous new forms of stem rust, particularly in countries whose people can ill afford the economic impact of damage to this vital crop."

First discovered in 1998 in Uganda, the original Ug99 has also been found in Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen and Iran. A Global Cereal Rust Monitoring System at the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggests it is on the march, threatening major wheat-growing areas of Southern and Eastern Africa, the Central Asian republics, the Caucasus, the Indian subcontinent, South America, Australia and North America.

"We hope other governments and donors will follow the U.K.'s lead and increase investments to provide small-scale farmers with the tools they need to improve their yields so they can feed their families and overcome poverty," said Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the Global Development Program at the foundation.

The new grant will allow Cornell to build on international efforts to combat stem rust -- particularly Ug99 and its variants. Among the university's partners are national research centers in Kenya and Ethiopia, the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas in Syria. The FAO and advanced research laboratories in the United States, Canada, China, Australia, Denmark and South Africa also collaborate on the project. The DRRW project also involves more than 20 leading universities and research institutes throughout the world, and scientists and farmers from more than 40 countries.

As part of the agreement, DFID will contribute some $15 million to the DRRW, and the foundation will contribute $25 million over the next five.

"It is important that public and private institutions work together to develop long-term, sustainable and effective solutions to make life better for the world in which we live," said Cornell President David J. Skorton.