Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Wheat could yield another 5t/ha say researchers

December 23, 2019 by  
Filed under Crops

Wheat yields could be increased by more than 5t/ha by exploiting the crop’s untapped genetic potential, suggests newly published research.

Yields in the UK could be increased by half as much again compared to typical harvests from today’s commonly used varieties, according the Rothamsted Research study. And some other European countries could see increases of up to 90%.

Such improvements would go a long way to feeding the growing world population – while reducing pressure to convert wild habitats to farmland, say researchers who used simulations to create “perfect” wheat plants tailored to each region.

In all cases, they found wheat varieties were underperforming for grain yield compared to the performance of locally adapted cultivars – with an obvious genetic yield gap between reality and possibility.

Scientists behind the study define a crop’s genetic yield potential as the highest yield achievable by an idealised variety – in other words, a plant with a genome that allows it to capture water, sunlight and nutrients more efficiently than any other.

Lead researcher Mikhail Semenov said: “Improving genetic yield potential and closing the genetic yield gap are important to achieve global food security.

“Europe is the largest wheat producer, delivering more than a third of wheat globally, but European wheat’s yield potential from genetic improvements has not yet been realised.”

The study looked at six locally adapted wheat cultivars at 13 sites across the continent, representing the major and contrasting wheat growing regions in Europe – from Spain in the south to Denmark in the north, and Hungary in the east to the UK in the west.

Computer simulation

Using a computer model called Sirius, they ran millions of simulations. The results demonstrated that many wheat traits contributing to the amount of grain produced were performing well below their optimums.

Simulations were based on extensive data on the natural genetic variation underpinning key plant traits. These included tolerance and response to drought and heat stresses, the size and orientation of the light-capturing upper leaves, and the timing of key life cycle events.

Published in the journal Global Food Security, the results show that fine-tuning wheat genomes to their environments could potentially produce up to 15t/ha, with the idealised average of 5.2t/ha being greater than the current average.

“Despite intensive wheat breeding efforts, current local cultivars were found to be far from the achievable optimum, meaning that a large genetic yield gap still exists for European wheat,” said Malcolm Hawkesford, who heads up Rothamsted’s Plant Sciences Department.

Improvements ahead

Dr Semenov is optimistic that wheat yields can be improved. “A vast natural genetic variation exists for different traits in wheat. In the last few decades substantial progress has been made in identifying the genes associated with key traits for wheat improvement and adaptation.”

At the same time, modern plant breeding technology has advanced – including gene mapping, molecular marker-assisted breeding, genomics-assisted breeding and gene editing. These advances could help develop well-adapted, climate smart cultivars for future climates.

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