WSU to develop heat-resistant wheat

Apr 9, 2013

An idea for helping Washington’s wheat farmers might also help fight poverty around the world.  It’s a new variety of wheat that could thrive despite global warming.

Washington State University will lead an effort to develop wheat varieties that are better at tolerating high temperatures.

The $16 million project is part of the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative called Feed the Future.

When temperatures rise above 82 degrees F, especially during the season when the wheat is flowering, yields drop dramatically.

Kulvinder Gill, a wheat geneticist at WSU saw this first-hand during his childhood, growing up on a family wheat farm in India.

“The temperature used to go to like 90 or 95, sometimes even touching 100. And wheat just doesn’t do very good if its flowering and the temperature goes that high up," says Gill.

The overall yield from an acre drops by nearly a third if the temperature his 90.

Other grains such as rye can do fine at those temperatures, says Gill. So his team, including scientists in Kansas and India, will sort through the wheat genome, to find the rare wheat seed that retains the ancient gene for heat-resistance. Then, they'll use high-tech methods to propagate those seeds. This is a faster version of traditional cross-breeding, as opposed to "genetic modification."

Researchers aim to have their first set of "climate-resilient" varieties in five years.

The research will focus on the North Indian River Plain in India, which is home to nearly one billion people and faces challenges such as limited water and rising temperatures.

Additional funding comes from the Indian government.

"Sitting here in the U.S., most of us, we don’t realize how scary the situation is, and how fast the population is increasing," says Gill.

Feeding all those millions of people could hinge on crops that can resist heat and drought.

The new wheat also would help farmers in central Washington where the temperature can spike up unpredictably in May and June, reducing their yields.