PULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University will lead a $16.2 million effort to develop wheat varieties that are better at tolerating the high temperatures found in most of the world’s growing regions – temperatures that are likely to increase with global warming.
The research will be supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Directorate of Wheat Research (DWR). The work is part of the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future.
Researchers aim to have their first set of “climate-resilient” varieties in five years.
The research will focus on the North Indian River Plain, which is home to nearly 1 billion people and faces challenges such as limited water and rising temperatures, said Kulvinder Gill, project director and the Vogel Endowed Chair for Wheat Breeding and Genetics at WSU.
“The project will benefit all wheat growing regions of the world,” he said, “as heat during certain stages of the plant’s development is an issue in most wheat growing regions.”
The researchers will combine conventional and newly developed breeding tools to identify genes or sets of genes associated with heat tolerance, a rarely studied trait with an outsized importance in yields. A wheat plant’s productivity falls off dramatically when temperatures rise above 82 degrees F, and the effects are particularly dramatic in the flowering stage, when the plant sets the seed that is ultimately harvested and milled for food.
Every rise of just a couple of degrees above 82 in the flowering stage cuts yields by 3 to 4 percent. Some parts of the North Indian River Plain can reach 95 degrees during flowering, said Gill, who worked in the withering heat of his family’s Punjab farm as a child.
The Climate Resilient Wheat project will continue efforts by Gill and colleagues to help wheat plants deal with environmental stresses. He is in the later stages of a three-year, $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation and the Gates Foundation to develop drought-tolerant “desert wheat.”
Support from USAID will leverage more than $11 million from other partners and fund research at WSU and project-related activities in India, said Gill.
The effort will include researchers from Kansas State University, the seed manufacturer and processor DuPont Pioneer, India’s Directorate of Wheat research and National Bureau of Plant Genetics Resources, GB Pant University, CCS Meerut University, Punjab Agricultural University, Rajendra Agricultural University and two private companies in India. As many as 35 Ph.D. students and 30 postdoctoral or research fellows will also be involved.
-Eric Sorensen, WSU science writer