Scientists believe global wheat production could be doubled by accessing the crop’s “untapped genetic potential”.
Using modern techniques such as rapid breeding and gene editing, the international team behind the new research says it would be possible to grow new varieties of wheat suited to each region in which they are found. cultivated.
Depending on their genes, different varieties of wheat capture water, sunlight and nutrients in different ways. Scientists propose that with an optimal genome, wheat crops would be able to provide a higher yield of grain per acre.
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The study, led by UK research Rothamsted, used existing data on how different genes contribute to individual plant characteristics “such as size, shape, metabolism and growth”.
They ran millions of simulations to efficiently engineer the perfect wheat plants suitable for their local environment. By comparing them to locally adapted cultivars, they found in all cases that current wheat varieties underperform for grain yield.
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Dr Mikhail Semenov, one of the study’s leaders, said: “Current wheat cultivars are, on average, only halfway in terms of the yields they could produce given the mismatches between their genetics and local wheat growing conditions.
“Global wheat production could be doubled by genetic improvement of local wheat cultivars – without increasing global wheat acreage,” he added.
Dr Nimai Senapati, the study’s leader, said improving this “genetic yield gap” would both help feed the world’s growing population and reduce pressure to convert wild habitats to farmland.
Humans have been farming wheat for millennia and the impact on our species has been enormous – farming is often described as the first revolutionary step in human civilization, as it led to settlements and changing social structures .
Today, wheat is the most widely grown crop in the world and second only to rice in terms of human consumption, with global harvests of around 750 million tonnes.
The new study published in the journal Nature Food examines 53 wheat growing regions in 33 countries, covering all global wheat growing environments.
The team first calculated the potential yield of 28 wheat varieties commonly grown at each of these sites, assuming the best growing conditions were in place for each.
Harvests were extremely varied, with less than four tonnes per hectare in Australia and Kazakhstan, with 14 tonnes per hectare in New Zealand.
But these have been improved by replacing local cultivars with the idealized varieties of wheat favoring particular traits, such as “tolerance and response to drought and heat stress, size and orientation of upper leaves capturing the light and the timing of key life cycle events”.
According to the study, by optimizing these key traits, the global average genetic yield gap could be closed by 51%, meaning global wheat production could be doubled.
“It is not surprising that countries with the lowest current yields could benefit the most from closing their genetic yield gaps,” Dr Senapati said.
“That said, even improvements in countries with an average genetic yield gap of 40-50%, but with a large proportion of the world’s wheat crop area – such as major producers India, Russia, China, the United States, Canada and Pakistan – would have a substantial effect on world wheat production due to the larger wheat acreage involved. »
According to the researchers, prior to this study, it was unclear how large the genetic yield gaps were nationally and globally.
They say this concept of a genetic yield gap contrasts with the existing, more traditional view of a yield gap that compares crops to what they could have done under optimal management “due to factors such as pests or diseases, lack of nutrients or sowing or harvesting at the wrong time”.
“Our analysis suggests that these genetic yield gaps due to suboptimal genetic adaptation could, in relative terms, be as large as the traditional yield gap due to imperfect crop and soil management,” said Dr. Semenov.
“Wheat was first domesticated around 11,000 years ago, but despite this – and not to mention the sequencing of its entire genome in 2018 – the crop is still far from at its ‘genetic best’,” he added.