Key to feeding the future may be found in wheat’s distant relatives

By Meghan Eldridge

CIUDAD OBREGON, Mexico — The perfect variety of wheat for a particular environment may be a combination of genes from the past and present.

The Wheat Improvement Strategic Programme began in 2011 at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom and is moving toward producing wheat varieties that contain desirable traits from plants distantly related to wheat.

Ian King, a project leader for the program, presented his team’s research Thursday at the Borlaug Summit on Wheat for Food Security.

Scientists create new wheat varieties through a process in the lab called introgression, a series of steps that starts when a desirable trait, say salt-resistance, is identified in a plant species that’s similar to wheat, such as rye.

Once the desirable trait is identified, the relative of wheat, in this case rye, is crossed with wheat genes. This step of the process produces a hybrid plant, a combination of genes from rye and wheat together in one organism.

The hybrid is then crossed back with the original genes in the wheat, over and over, until the desired trait in the rye is present in the wheat. This long, intricate process creates a wheat variety that has just enough genetic material from another species to produce a desired trait that will help the plant survive in a specific environment.

“All we want to do at the end of the day is get back to wheat with just a small added segment of a distant relative’s DNA,” King said.

Introgression creates substantial potential to produce wheat that tolerates various environmental stresses, like high heat, drought and disease.

“It gives us the potential to answer many of the problems with wheat breeding,” King said. “The potential is that these genes will enable the development of wheat varieties that meet the needs of a growing population.”

King hopes the program’s research will continue to make progress in the lab and begin field-testing globally by 2016, he said.

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