Genetic research points to wheat’s untapped yield potential

By Joan Conrow

December 13, 2019

Improved genetics could greatly enhance European wheat yields, according to groundbreaking new research that offers hope for achieving global food security in a changing climate.

Scientists at Rothamsted Research found that wheat plants could potentially produce up to 5.2 tonnes more grain per hectare than they currently do by “fine tuning” their genomes to their environments, according to results published in the journal Global Food Security.

The research suggests that wheat — a major food staple first domesticated about 11,000 years ago — still has not achieved its full genetic potential. It also offers hope for significantly increasing food supplies without bringing more land into production.

“Improving genetic yield potential and closing the genetic yield gap are important to achieve global food security,” said lead researcher Dr. Mikhail Semenov in a statement released by Rothamsted. “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 realized.”

Wheat currently provides about 20 percent of the world’s total dietary calories and protein. It’s predicted that food production will need to increase by about 70 percent overall to feed a population estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050.

Using existing data on the contribution of different genes to individual plant traits, such as size, shape, metabolism and growth, researchers ran millions of computer simulations to create wheat plants ideally tailored to each growing region, in terms of their ability to efficiently capture water, sunlight and nutrients. Upon comparing these “perfect” plants to the performance of six locally adapted cultivars at 13 sites across Europe, the found a significant gap between reality and possibility.

“In other words, 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,” explained Malcolm Hawkesford, head of the Plant Sciences Department at Rothamsted Research.

Semenov noted that the “vast natural genetic variation” for different traits in wheat, coupled with the advancement of modern plant breeding technology, including gene mapping, molecular marker-assisted breeding, genomics-assisted breeding and gene editing, offer hope of realizing this untapped potential.

“These genetic resources and technical advances therefore provide opportunities to develop well- adapted, climate-smart wheat cultivars for future climates,” he said.