UNTAPPED GENETIC POTENTIAL MEANS WHEAT YIELDS ONLY 60% OF WHAT THEY COULD BE
Study shows after 11,000 years of wheat breeding, we've still got a long way to go
European wheat harvests could be increased by more than 5 tonnes a hectare according to newly published research into the crop’s untapped genetic potential.
The first of its kind study from Rothamsted Research shows that in some European countries the grain yield could be increased by up to 90% when compared to typical harvests from today’s commonly used varieties.
Yields in the UK could be increased by half as much again.
The authors say, if achieved, such improvements would go a long way to feeding the growing world population and would reduce pressure to convert wild habitats to farmland.
Using existing data on the contribution of different genes to individual plant traits such as size, shape, metabolism and growth, the researchers ran simulations to create ‘perfect’ wheat plants that were tailored to each region.
When compared to the performance of locally adapted cultivars, in all cases they found wheat varieties were underperforming for grain yield, with an obvious ‘genetic yield gap’ between reality and possibility.
The 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 Dr 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.”
Dr Semenov and colleague, Dr Nimai Senapati, 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.
Using a computer model called Sirius, they ran millions of simulations, which demonstrated that many of the wheat traits that contribute to the amount of grain produced were 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 if their genomes were ‘fine-tuned’ to their environments, that wheat plants potentially produce up to 15 tonnes of grain per hectare, with the idealised average 5.2 tonnes per hectare greater than the current average.
“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,” commented Prof Malcolm Hawkesford, who heads up the Plant Sciences Department at Rothamsted.
Wheat was first domesticated about 11,000 years ago, but despite this – and not to mention the sequencing of its entire genome in 2018 – the crop is still some way from being at its ‘genetic best’.
However, Dr Semenov is still optimistic wheat yields can be improved.
He said: “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 genetic resources and technical advances therefore provide opportunities to develop well adapted, climate smart, wheat cultivars for future climates.”
Wheat is one of the key staple crops for global food security, providing about 20% of total dietary calories and protein, and Europe is a major wheat producer, contributing around 35% of global wheat production.
It has been predicted that global food production needs to increase by about 70% by 2050 to feed an estimated 9 billion people.
About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
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The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.