PULLMAN, Wash. (May 24, 2022) – Wheat and other plants avoid overheating by evaporating water from leaf surfaces. However, this mechanism is inefficient if the soil moisture is scarce. As climate change disrupts precipitation patterns, causing drought conditions to become more prevalent, wheat breeders must pursue every genetic advantage possible to increase the crop’s climate resiliency. The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research is awarding a $999,736 Seeding Solutions grant to Washington State University (WSU) to identify genes promoting heat and drought resiliency in wheat. Matching funds were provided by Flinders University, LongReach Plant Breeders, O.A. Vogel Wheat Research Fund, Washington Grain Commission and WSU for a total $2,141,527 investment.
“Extreme heat and drought are emerging as one of the greatest threats to food security, and helping crops respond must be a top priority of food and agriculture researchers,” said Dr. Jeffrey Rosichan, director of FFAR’s Crops of the Future Collaborative. “Also, we’re now seeing how wheat supply can be placed at risk by war in wheat-producing countries. This research takes up these challenges by improving wheat’s natural ability to respond to climate threats, ensuring consistent supply.”
The combination of heat and drought changes biochemical reactions, resulting in the production of chemicals known as free radicals that reduce yield. Wheat can limit the damage to yields by detoxifying these chemicals using a variety of enzymes and antioxidants. Although this trait can reduce yield losses in harsh environments, it is not promoted in breeding programs because in the past there has been no method for determining the genes that control the process.
WSU researchers, led by Dr. Andrei Smertenko, developed a method to measure the amount of certain cell components in wheat that detoxify the free radicals. Measuring the levels of these components in response to harsh climate conditions will provide clues to which genetic markers in wheat correlate with increased detoxification of free radicals. This knowledge will allow breeders to target and promote those genes to enhance the detoxification process.
“There’s no simple way to find out how plants cope with increased heat and drought conditions at the genetic level,” said Dr. Smertenko. “Discovery of the resiliency genes is difficult because chemical reactions inside plants are hard to observe. But we will be looking at how the plants react to stress and we predict measuring wheat varieties adapted to different geographical locations will reveal genetic markers of lower oxidative damage.”
The research team is composed of an international collaboration of partners, including CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center), Flinders University and WSU and four associates, the Institute of Plant Breeding and Genetics and the Institute of Biology and Medicine of Taras Shevchenko National University, both in Ukraine, the Institute of Plant Biology and Biotechnology in Kazakhstan, and LongReach Plant Breeders.
The researchers will test hundreds of varieties of wheat to find less than a dozen that are the most promising for promoting this trait. Those varieties will then be tested in different environments to ensure the detoxification remains efficient in different geographic locations and growing conditions. CIMMYT will help share these genetic lines with breeders around the world.
Image: Sampling spring wheat population for analysis of drought response (Lind, WA). Courtesy of Dr. Andrei Smertenko, Washington State University.
Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research
The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) builds public-private partnerships to fund bold research addressing big food and agriculture challenges. FFAR was established in the 2014 Farm Bill to increase public agriculture research investments, fill knowledge gaps and complement USDA’s research agenda. FFAR’s model matches federal funding from Congress with private funding, delivering a powerful return on taxpayer investment. Through collaboration and partnerships, FFAR advances actionable science benefiting farmers, consumers and the environment.