Kansas researchers looking at new wheat varieties

Luke Ranker
Associated Press
Wheat grows in a greenhouse at the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center.

MANHATTAN, KS (AP) - Research at the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center could revolutionize farming not just in Kansas but around the world.

Scientists there use advanced breeding techniques to isolate sought-after qualities. Different than genetic modification, breeding selects wheat varieties that need less water, can grow in extreme heat, or are durable against disease and pests in process that can take nearly a decade. Researchers at the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center hope to reduce that time so farmers can grow better wheat, faster, said Aaron Harries, vice president of research and operations.

This year, the wheat streak mosaic virus ravaged wheat crops in western Kansas. A tiny mite that remained active during an unusually warm winter spread the disease over a larger area than before. Within a few years, a variety of wheat resistant to the virus will be in the hands of farmers, Harries said.

But even as researchers develop tougher wheats, Mother Nature catches up. Disease evolves and climates change.

"We're always striving to improve the yield," he said.

This year, a consortium of international geneticists will likely finish sequencing wheat's genome.

Similar to the Human Genome Project that mapped human genetics, the project, which began in part with the center's research, will lay out the fundamentals of the wheat gene so scientists can more easily identify desirable traits.

It's not just farmers that benefit from Kansas Wheat research. Varieties are being developed that are naturally sweeter, so bakers and food companies can use less sugar to sweeten doughs.

The Capital-Journal reports that researchers are also talking to the growing number of people who have celiac disease. Those with the condition are unable to digest gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. With clues unlocked in the wheat genome, the institute hopes to locate the specific portions of the protein that cause the reaction and breed it out or silence it, Harries said.

"That's the protein that makes bread rise, so we're not trying to make it 'gluten free,'" he said. "We're trying to make it 'celiac safe.'"

To find the wheat qualities farmers and consumers want, researchers not only turn to wheat currently being grown, but they also have a store of ancient grains — the wild grass varieties bred together to form modern wheat. Scientists collected the grains from places such as Syria, Iraq and Israel.

"We go treasure hunting for traits from those relatives and cross them into modern bread wheat," Harries said.

With all these different types of wheat on the market, Harries said the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center sees a revolution coming in the way wheat is grown, sold and processed. Currently, farmers growing consumer grain sell it to the elevator at harvest, which turns it over to a company in the food industry.

In future, farmers may contract directly with a certain company to grow a specific type of wheat.

A farmer with 100 acres may grow 50 acres of consumer wheat, 25 acres of sweet wheat and 25 acres of celiac-safe wheat, Harries said.

"Ultimately that will change the way we grow wheat." he said.

Heartland Plant Innovations research associate Tyler Suelter pulls reproductive elements out of wheat plants as he demonstrates the doubled haploid process used to select desirable wheat traits.

These advances in wheat are years away, but they begin in tiny pots in the institute's more than 35,000-square-foot, $11 million facility. That's where Heartland Plant Innovations research associate Tyler Suelter and a team breed new wheat varieties using a doubled haploid technique that can shave years off the breeding process.

Suelter said it sounds complex, but it's really an acceleration of traditional breeding.
The process involves producing plants that have all the same genetics. When a variety is identified, scientists emasculate the plants, leaving only the female reproductive system.

Maize is used to pollinate the plant so an embryo is produced. Since the embryo wasn't pollinated with wheat, it has half the number of chromosomes. Breeders will later double the count, so the plant has two copies of identical chromosomes — a process that takes generations with typical breeding.

The research has produced nearly 100,000 doubled haploid variations and reduces the amount of time it takes to breed a new wheat variety.

"The time savings comes from how long it takes to grow the plants out. With (traditional breeding), you grow out several generations, and each takes six months," Suelter said. "With doubled haploid, you basically fix those traits in a single generation."