Strict dieters probably save the empty calories from pastas and breads for their ‘cheat’ days, but now wheat-based products can be both healthy and tasty. Historically, wheat production has primarily focused on yield – more wheat produced per hectare. Yet, the focus on increased production unintentionally resulted in reduced nutritional quality. Breads, noodles and the like are not considered to be particularly high in protein and micronutrients. Specifically, iron and zinc are the micronutrients that are most important to human health, yet are found in low quantities in wheat. Given growing threats to food and nutrition security in the face of population growth and a changing climate, scientists are tackling the challenge of producing wheat varieties that are both high yielding and rich in protein and nutritional quality.
One promising tactic is to incorporate wild relatives in wheat breeding programs like the one at Kansas State University, where I’m conducting my research. Wild relatives are ancient species that spontaneously hybridized to give rise to modern domesticated wheat. These relatives are valuable sources of diversity that may be used to develop wheat varieties with enhanced nutritional quality. The main difference between wild relatives and modern cultivars is that wild relatives lack the domestication traits that are essential for the productivity of modern cultivars. The domestication traits found in every modern wheat cultivar are lack of shattering, which is the ability to retain seed on heads of wheat until harvest and free threshing which is the ease of removing seed from heads of wheat during harvest. These traits, along with high yield, are present in wheat due to many generations of farmers selecting for the wheat that was the easiest to harvest and the most profitable. With many important nutritional traits being sacrificed for yield and domestication traits, scientists are now focusing on combining traits from wild relatives with traits from modern cultivars. Because wild relatives lack key domestication traits, they are very difficult to work with, ultimately preventing widespread incorporation in wheat breeding programs.
My research focuses on widespread incorporation of these wild relatives in new cultivar development by identifying and describing traits related to both agronomic and nutritional quality. I am working with a set of 300 lines, genetically alike material that was all derived from a cross between the same parents. These lines contain 12.5 percent wild relative material – a manageable level for a large-scale study. Incorporation of the wild relatives provides diversity, with some lines being very similar in appearance and production to wild relatives, which have low yield and high nutrition and other lines resembling modern wheat, with its high yield and low nutrition. The results from one year of field experiments have highlighted lines with both higher than average yield and nutrition. My dissertation research will build on these early results to further test the feasibility of incorporating wild relatives in breeding programs.
With the success of my project, the developed lines can be used in early stages of the breeding program, improving the overall average nutritional quality of the cultivars that are released for use by growers. Additionally, they can be used by other breeding programs to nutritionally improve cultivars that are released in North America and around the world. The process of improvement will be slow, as it takes roughly between seven to ten years to develop a variety ready for release. Yet the potential for widespread adoption by wheat growers would mean wheat and wheat products that yield high nutrition without sacrificing the domestication qualities that growers need to stay in business.
My research would not be possible without the connections I’ve made through the Kansas State University wheat breeding program and my industry sponsor, the Kansas Wheat Commission. Sponsorship from the Kansas Wheat Commission has allowed my participation in the Rockey FFAR Fellows program, whereby I am given space to focus on the development of professional skills and mentorship by non-university professionals. Preparation in the areas of teamwork, science communication, management, and negotiation has the potential to provide me with a successful career. My enthusiasm for collaboration with industry professionals informs and diversifies my career options. The Kansas Wheat Commission and Rockey FFAR Fellows program are equipping me with the required tools to pursue a career outside of academia.