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Free State profs help track down deadly fungus

It’s called Ug99, and it’s a stem rust fungus that threatens the global wheat supply

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The origin of a deadly wheat pathogen which threatens a vital global food source has been identified by an international team of academicresearchers, including two professors from the University of the Free State in South Africa.

First identified in Africa two decades ago, the strain of the stem rust fungus, called Ug99, was said to threaten the global wheat supply due to its ability to attack most varieties planted across the world.Rust diseases cause substantial crop losses each year. 

It was first detected in Uganda in 1998 and described in 1999 and has since given rise to an “asexual lineage” that has spread through Africa to the Middle East, causing devastating damage to wheat crops. 

Professor Zakkie Pretorius and Professor Botma Visser, researchers from the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of the Free State in South Africa joined forces with the University of Minnesota, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), and Australian National University, to uncover the basis of Ug99’s virulence by examining the pathogen’s genome.

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Professor Zakkie Pretorius of the University of the Free State in South Africa

They determined that the pathogen can be traced to a rarely observed phenomenon where two different rust strains fuse together and exchange intact nuclei. This is said to create a hybrid strain with a wider host range than its original parents.

“Ug99 is an imminent threat to global food security due to its wide virulence and potential ability to spread across continents and oceans to infect distant wheat crops,” said Professor Zakkie Pretorius of the University of the Free State.

Dr Melania Figueroa, from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia, said: “This information will be critical for deciphering the genetic basis and evolution of rust virulence on wheat and for monitoring the global movements of the pathogen.” 

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Professor Botma Visser of the University of the Free State

                 Why is this discovery important?

Dr Figueroa explained why the discovery is important: “The more you know your enemy, the more equipped you are to fight against it. Knowing how these pathogens came about means we can better predict how they are likely to change in the future. This discovery also means that we can better identify the resistance genes, which can be bred into wheat varieties to give crops long-lasting protection against rust.”

Dr Feng Li of the University of Minnesota, and joint first author on the study, said: “As plant scientists, we are always looking for an advantage over stem rust in order to develop more durably resistant crops. The data obtained from this study will provide us with new insights on how Ug99 emerged to threaten wheat across the world.”

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Professor Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice Chancellor of the University of the Free State

Professor Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, said: “At the UFS we are always delighted when our academics make an impact that improves life for people. This latest discovery has the potential to prevent a devastating impact on the world’s food supply. A problem first recognised in Africa 20 years ago has found part of the solution at an African University.”

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TikTok takes on COVID-19

The fastest growing social media platform in the world has also become an epicenter of public education about the coronavirus, attracting more than 30-billion views, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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The young have been getting a bad rap for wanting to party on while COVID-19 sends the world into lockdown. But a different movie is playing itself out on the social platform that is growing fastest among teenagers: TikTok.

Awareness campaigns by TikTok itself, collaboration with the International Red Cross, and spontaneous videos made by TikTok creators have combined into a barrage of information, education, awareness and social consciousness around the coronavirus.

Both globally and in South Africa, TikTok’s COVID-19 campaigns have gone viral.

The local #HayiCorona challenge, designed to remind people not to touch their face and wash hands regularly, has passed 1.5-million views. The TikTok collaboration with the International Red Cross, the #WashingHands challenge, has passed 12.6-million views.

One of the best-known participants in these challenges is the past year’s icon of South African talent, the Ndlovu Youth Choir, took up the global challenge with a 20-second hand-washing video. It put together a performance that brings tremendous energy to what can be a clichéd message, and ends with a punt for the Department of Health’s WhatsApp information service. The video can be viewed below.

@ndlovuyouthchoir

Our community has limited access to running water. Follow these instructions on how to safely wash your hands using a bucket. ##coronavirus##washinghands

♬ original sound – ndlovuyouthchoir

“On a global scale, TikTok also partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) to ensure that, while creators are still having fun and expressing themselves on the platform, they stay informed with COVID-19 information coming from a reliable source,” a TikTok spokesperson told us. “Through the partnership, the WHO has created an informational page on TikTok that offers information to curb the spread of the coronavirus as well as dispelling myths.”

The page can be viewed at https://vm.tiktok.com/GHTEGf

TikTok has hosted a number of livestreams with WHO experts, attracting users from more than 70 countries, tuning in for live question and answer sessions. It has also introduced labels on coronavirus-related videos, to point users to trusted information. Resources are also offered directly in the app and in a dedicated COVID-19 section of TikTok’s Safety Center, at https://www.tiktok.com/safety/resources/covid-19.

If users simply want to explore videos on the topic, they can search via the #coronavirus hashtag, or click on https://vm.tiktok.com/swKbn4. The hashtag has had an astonishing 33.8-billion views, indicating the scale of activity and interest around the topic on the platform.

Read more on the next page about how South Africans have embraced the campaign.

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On World Backup Day: backup, backup, backup

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It was World Backup Day yesterday, 31 March, at a time when business continuity is threatened as never before. That makes calls for protecting email and defending against ransomware all the more urgent.

The global coronavirus pandemic has brought into stark relief many organisations’ lack of business continuity plans and policies. With more than two billion people around the globe in forced lockdown in wide-ranging government efforts to stem the tide of infections, an unprecedented number of employees are working remotely.

This interruption to the normal way of work is precisely what an effective and resilient business continuity strategy should plan for, says Heino Gevers, cybersecurity specialist at Mimecast

“Companies need uninterrupted access to critical business applications during times of disruption, including safe and secure web and email access for workers that are now operating outside the normal perimeters of the organisation,” he says. “In addition, comprehensive backup and archiving solutions should be ready to restore access to critical business applications should there be any unplanned downtime to ensure continuity until the crisis passes.”

According to Gevers, the current global crisis is likely to push business continuity up the list of priorities for many organisations that have been disrupted by the effects of the coronavirus.

“Organisations are facing new challenges to their productivity; for example in terms of technical support. If a remote user is infected with malware or ransomware, how does the IT team restore that device or do any remediation without being able to physically access it?”

Gevers advises that organisations implement tools that enhances the data protection capabilities of commonly-used tools such as Office365 and can leverage archived data to provide quick recovery of email data in the event of accidental loss, malicious attacks or technical failure. 

“As adoption of cloud-based business applications grow in the wake of forced lockdowns around the globe, companies need to ensure they have the tools to recover in any situation,” he says. “This includes a data management strategy that combines archiving, backup and data protection capabilities to allow for quick restoration of critical systems and applications in the event of disruption.”

Jasmit Sagoo, head of technology at Veritas for the United Kingdom and Ireland, warns that this is a golden age for cybercriminals looking for ransomware opportunities.

“As the global cost of ransomware continues to grow, this World Backup Day, Veritas is saying: ‘don’t pay up, back up!’,” he says. “Ransomware is said to generate an estimated annual revenue of $1 billion a year, and companies who are not consistent in backing up their data are allowing criminals to line their pockets.

“Ransomware attacks exist only because some businesses can’t survive unless the hackers give them back their data.  So, the key to survival is removing that reliance and being able to regain access to data, without engaging with the cybercriminals.  The best way to do that is with a sound backup strategy.

“Sagoo advises organisations to create isolated, offline backup copies of their data to keep it out of reach of any attackers.  They then need to proactively monitor and restrict backup credentials, while running backups frequently to shrink the risk of potential data loss. Businesses should also test and retest their ransomware defences regularly.

“Ransomware strikes without warning and it doesn’t discriminate between its targets – it can happen to any organisation, large or small. Despite their best efforts, most companies will fall to at least one attack. What distinguishes one victim from another is the ability to bounce back, which ultimately depends on its backup strategy.

“When ransomware hits, organisations that aren’t prepared often feel helpless to do anything other than to submit to their attacker’s demands.   That’s why we’re urging all businesses to use World Backup Day as a catalyst to get ahead of the situation and get their data protected.”

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