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Wheat Research

Wheat Breeding

Improving Barley and Wheat Germplasm
for Changing Environments

Wheat Research Briefer

Wheat Breeding

Low returns for wheat trait developers have pushed capital toward competing crops. For example, U.S. investments in corn trait development are approximately $10 per acre per year, as opposed to $0.70 per acre per year for wheat. The result of that disparity is a 10-year net boost in corn yields of 23 percent, versus a slight increase of only 4 percent in wheat yields.

NAMA is excited about recently announced private investments in wheat research for both biotech and conventional seeds. Since late 2008, acquisitions and partnerships have been announced by seed technology firms Monsanto, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta and Limagrain Cereal Seeds.

NAMA encourages seed trait developers to continue investing in wheat research and supports protecting their intellectual property. Growers’ will likely have to stop saving seed from last year’s harvest to plant the next crop (“bin run seed”). This will be a challenge given that seed costs for biotech corn are about $80 per acre, as compared with a mere $12 per acre for bin run wheat seed.


U.S. wheat and barley planted acres and yields are far below those for corn and soybeans. In order to increase the availability and quality of wheat grown in the U.S. a concerted effort is needed towards the development of new varieties that can adapt to fluctuations in weather and be water and nitrogen efficient. NAMA sent a letter to the University of California in July 2010 in support of the “Improving barley and wheat germplasm for changing environments” Agriculture and Food Research Institute (AFRI) research grant proposal.

Funding: $25 million ($5 million over 5 years) grant from the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) AFRI.

Scientists: 56 scientists from 28 institutions, led by Dr. Jorge Dubcovsky of the University of California at Davis and Dr. Gary Muehlbauer at the University of Minnesota.

Goals: The goal of the project is to develop methods to produce new varieties that minimize the damage to crops from stresses associated with climate change. It will return significant benefits to farmers by developing tools to adapt varieties planted by growers across the country.

Long-Term Goals: The long-term objective is a 10 percent reduction in both nitrogen and water use in barley and wheat production and a reduction of yield losses due to diseases. The main research areas are water and nitrogen use efficiency and genetic resistance to fungal diseases with an emphasis on rusts.

Technology: The AFRI project builds on the rapidly decreasing costs of genetic sequencing, digital multi-spectral imaging, and data management to accelerate breeding cycles. This will improve publicly-available germplasm. T-CAP will standardize methods for high-throughput field evaluation and integrating genetic and field measurements into public open-source databases (GRIN, GrainGenes, and GRAMENE). All breeding programs will be able to build upon these innovations.

Using the World Collection of Wheat and Barley: T-CAP scientists will systematically characterize wheat and barley lines cataloged in the National Small Grains Collection (NSGC) in addition to commercial varieties.  Gene variants present in these collections will be associated with tolerance to biotic and abiotic stresses. Linking high throughput genotyping to high throughput field evaluations will accelerate the introduction of novel genes using non-GMO technology into cereal breeding programs. The new funding and genomic data will provide breeders with deeper access to useful genes present in this valuable collection.

Training the Next Generation to Feed the World: T-CAP will train a new generation of plant breeders in the most advanced breeding technologies helping to address a national shortage of plant scientists. The project will train a minimum of 30 new plant breeders and attract new undergraduate students to plant sciences. Scientists in the grant will develop an interactive on-line training environment to provide students with access to the best specialists in the country.

This project also aims to extend state-of-the-art crop improvement technologies into minority serving universities.  Importantly, this project will strengthen the national network of barley and wheat public breeding programs and provide continuing education for working plant breeders to facilitate broad adoption of the latest advances in genotyping and phenotyping.

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