By Steve Karnowski, Associated Press

Sen. Amy Klobuchar said today she'll fight to preserve funding for research into a virulent plant disease conducted by a federal lab at the University of Minnesota that's threatened by budget cuts.

The Minnesota Democrat gave the assurance to researchers who led her on a tour of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cereal Rust Laboratory on the university's St. Paul campus.

The scientists are studying several types of wheat stem rust, including a dangerous new strain of the fungus known as Ug99, which has spread from Africa to the Middle East and now threatens to spread to South Asia. U.S. varieties of wheat have no resistance to it.

The Bush administration's budget proposal would cut $309,000 from that research, which would be a significant loss for a lab with a budget of just $1.6 million, said Marty Carson, the lab's research leader.

An Associated Press review published this week found that spending on the lab here and at others where scientists are developing disease-resistant wheat varieties is being reduced because the money is being diverted to other programs and earmarked for congressional pet projects.

It's not just the lab in St. Paul where such research is threatened, but several around the nation and the world that are financed in part by the U.S. government. However, Klobuchar was told, the lab here is one of only three in the world and the only one in this country capable of doing the kind of research it's doing into particularly virulent plant diseases.

Because of work by Klobuchar and others, the administration lost an attempt to cut $311,000 from the Minnesota lab's budget last year. She said she's working to add the money for the new budget to a USDA appropriations bill working its way through the Senate's committee process.

Klobuchar told the scientists it makes no sense to be cutting research that protects the world's food supply. She said anything that reduces the food supply, even abroad, pushes up food prices in the U.S.

"We're going to work hard on getting this funding again," she said. "I know we restored it last year, so we have a track record of getting it back. It makes all the world of sense, especially when you have these increased wheat prices right now."

Carson and fellow scientist Yue Jin showed Klobuchar on a map how Ug99, which was discovered in Uganda in 1999, has since spread across the Red Sea to Yemen and Iran, and threatens to spread further.

Yue, whose research is particularly threatened, showed Klobuchar how the researchers grow several varieties of wheat in the lab's greenhouse and inoculate them with various types of rust that produce brown lesions and reduce yields. A major priority is to identify which kinds of wheat show resistance to specific types of rust, and why, so that resistance can be bred or genetically engineered into new wheat varieties.

The scientists told the senator the threat to the world's food supply extends well beyond Ug99.

"It's not just what Ug99 can do, it's 'What's the next Ug99 lurking out there in the bushes?' "Carson said.