wheat field Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter

Project aims to boost global wheat yields

Researchers earn three-year grant totaling $975,000 from USDA.

A University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) research team has earned a three-year grant totaling $975,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop higher-yielding lines of hybrid wheat that can meet rising demand for the staple food crop. The first year of funding has been released, with the last two years subject to release based upon continued progress in the grant research.

Stephen Baenziger, UNL professor of agronomy and horticulture and presidential chair of the Nebraska Wheat Growers Assn., will lead the project in conjunction with colleagues from Texas A&M University, Kansas State University and Mexico's International Maize & Wheat Improvement Center. Awarded by USDA's National Institute of Food & Agriculture, the grant represents part of the U.S.'s contribution to the International Wheat Yield Partnership.

The International Wheat Yield Partnership is a voluntary consortium of international public funders, research organizations and private industry partners aiming to increase the genetic yield potential of wheat by up to 50% in the next 20 years.

"With the expected increasing demand for agricultural products – especially staple grains like wheat – and knowing the current wheat yield trajectory will not meet the future demand, we feel it is critical to try new approaches," Baenziger said.

Although wheat yields are currently rising at a rate of 0.9% per year, projections show that feeding the growing global population will require annual yield increases of 1.7%.

Researchers believe that hybrid wheat, which is more climate-resilient than inbred wheat, can contribute to this goal. Because wheat self-pollinates, one of the project's major objectives is to transform wheat into a cross-pollinated crop. Wheat breeding programs at UNL and Texas A&M will be screened for floral and plant traits that more efficiently produce hybrid seed. Researchers will also create and test hybrids to establish, confirm and characterize genetic lines that boast greater yields or climate resilience than the parent lines bred to create them. The project will further explore methods of creating hybrid seed on a commercial scale.

In the long term, the project will attempt to develop a transparent, accessible, public foundation for hybrid wheat research. It is expected that the private sector will be the main provider of hybrid seed to growers in the U.S.

Baenziger said geography represents one of the primary reasons Nebraska has a particular interest in hybrid wheat.

"The High Plains is an ideal place to produce hybrid wheat seed because of its irrigation and its early-morning wind, which supports cross-pollination," he said.

The UNL wheat breeding program has been internationally known for decades. In 1963, a UNL team made a major discovery of a restorer gene that enabled the development of hybrid wheat. At that time, it was considered the missing link in efforts to produce such wheat. Public and private research efforts continued through the 1970s and 1980s before declining. Baenziger said he believes current circumstances have created a great opportunity to revisit the development of hybrid wheat.

"With new genetic and chemical tools available today and funding from the USDA, we think the time is right to try to attempt to create a viable hybrid wheat market again," he said.

Baenziger said the project has links to hybrid wheat efforts at Saaten-Union Recherche in France; the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics & Crop Plant Research in Germany, led by Jochen Reif, and the University of Hohenheim in Germany, led by Friedrich Longin.

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