Study to boost wheat yield, contain extreme weather
Reported in Nature Genetics, the results will speed up global efforts to breed more productive and climate-resilient varieties of bread wheat, a critical crop for world food security that is under threat from rising temperatures, rapidly-evolving fungal pathogens, and more frequent droughts, according to Philomin Juliana, wheat scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and first author of the new study.
“This work directly connects the wheat genome reference map with wheat lines and extensive field data from CIMMYT’s global wheat breeding network,” said Juliana.
“That network, in turn, links to over 200 breeding programs and research centers worldwide and contributes to yield and other key traits in varieties sown on nearly half the world’s wheat lands.”
The staple food for more than 2.5b people, wheat provides 20 per cent of human dietary calories and protein worldwide and is critical for the nutrition and food security of hundreds of millions of poor persons in regions, such as North Africa and South Asia.
“Farmers and societies today face new challenges to feed rising and rapidly-urbanizing populations, and wheat epitomizes the issues,” said Ravi Singh, CIMMYT wheat breeder and corresponding author of the study.
“Higher temperatures are holding back yields in major wheat-growing areas, extreme weather events are common, crop diseases are spreading and becoming more virulent, and soil and water are being depleted.
”Juliana said the study results help pave the way to apply genomic selection, an approach that has transformed dairy cow husbandry, for more efficient wheat breeding.
“Molecular markers are getting cheaper to use; meanwhile, it’s very costly to do field testing and selection involving many thousands of wheat plants over successive generations,” Juliana said. “Genome-wide marker-based selection can help breeders to precisely identify good lines in early breeding generations and to test plantlets in greenhouses, thereby complementing and streamlining field testing.”
The new study found that genomic selection could be particularly effective in breeding for wheat end-use quality and for resistance to stem rust disease, whose causal pathogen has been evolving and spreading in the form of highly-virulent new races.
It also documents the effectiveness of the global public breeding efforts by CIMMYT and partners, showing that improved wheat varieties from this work have accumulated multiple gene variants that favour higher yields, according to Hans-Joachim Braun, director of CIMMYT’s global wheat program.
“This international collaboration, which is the world’s largest publicly-funded wheat breeding program, benefits farmers worldwide and offers high-quality wheat lines that are released directly to farmers in countries, such as Afghanistan, that are unable to run a full-fledged wheat breeding program,” Braun explained.
The study results are expected to support future gene discovery, molecular breeding, and gene editing in wheat, Braun said.