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Wheat with exotic DNA is much more heat tolerant

As global temperatures continue to rise, there is an urgent need to improve crop resilience and food security. A new study from the Earlham Institute has revealed that wheat containing exotic DNA from wild relatives can boost yields by more than 50 percent in hotter weather conditions.

“Wheat is among the most widely cultivated crops in the world with more than 216 million hectares grown annually, most of which is produced under temperate conditions,” wrote the study authors. 

“Heat stress is one of the major abiotic stressors that impacts global wheat production, reducing leaf area, crop duration and the efficiency of photosynthesis and respiration3 as well as reducing floret fertility and individual grain weight. Together, these physiological consequences negatively impact productivity with potential devastating effects.”

“For example, in 2010, Russia saw a 30% reduction in wheat yield during their hottest summer in 130 years5. Cases like this could become commonplace as global warming causes temperatures to rise and extreme weather events to become more frequent.”

Professor Anthony Hall noted that while wheat is responsible for around 20 percent of the calories consumed globally, it is uncertain whether the crops we are planting today will be able to cope with tomorrow’s weather. “To make matters worse, developing new varieties can take a decade or more so acting quickly is vital.”

In collaboration with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), the experts conducted a two-year field study in Mexico’s Sonora Desert to evaluate wheat crops under heat stressed conditions. The team analyzed 149 spring wheat lines, including widely-used elite varieties and those selectively bred to include DNA from wild relatives

“Crossing elite lines with exotic material has its challenges,” said study co-author Matthew Reynolds. “There’s a well-recognized risk of bringing in more undesirable than desirable traits, so this result represents a significant breakthrough in overcoming that barrier and the continued utilization of genetic resources to boost climate resilience.”

Ultimately, the researchers determined that plants bred with exotic DNA produced a 50-percent higher yield compared to wheat without this DNA. The experts also found that under normal conditions, exotic wheat lines did not perform any worse than elite lines.

“As we try to produce more food from less land to feed a growing global population, we urgently need to future-proof the crops we’re planting so they can thrive in an increasingly hostile climate,” said study co-author Benedict Coombes. “The key to this, we are increasingly finding, may lie within largely untapped genetic resources from wheat’s wild relatives and landraces.”

“This is science we can now use to make an impact almost immediately,” said Professor Hall. “We’ve done the field trials, we know what genetic markers we’re looking for, and we’re starting conversations with wheat breeders so this is hopefully going to be the first of many steps to contribute to global food security in the coming years.”

“The discoveries we’re making, and the action we’re taking, will hopefully mean people around the world can continue to have nutritious food on their plates.”

The research is published in the journal Communications Biology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Editor

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