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Researcher aims to boost Calif. wheat output

Tim Hearden

Capital Press

Researchers are working to stem the decline in California wheat production.

DAVIS, Calif. — Researchers are working to stem a decline in California wheat production by developing varieties that are more drought tolerant, resistant to diseases and more nutritious.

University of California-Davis plant sciences professor Jorge Dubcovsky, an international expert in wheat breeding and genomics, is leading a team that’s growing various wheat plants, examining them to find material that can be used to breed better varieties.

The work is of interest to industry leaders who are seeking ways to respond to the drought and other challenges, UC-Davis spokeswoman Diane Nelson said.

“They seem especially interested not only in drought tolerance but also yield,” she said. “Flowering early can save them on irrigation in the end.”

Wheat is one of the world’s most important crops, accounting to about 20 percent of humans’ diet every day, a UC-Davis news release explains. In California, wheat is a primary crop for many producers and a valuable rotation crop for maintaining soil quality.

However, a lack of rainfall and a dearth of planted acres held statewide winter wheat production this year to 480,000 tons, down 41 percent from last year, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service office in Sacramento. The 2014 Durum wheat production forecast is 173,000 tons, down 14 percent from 2013, NASS reports.

Recently, several hundred growers, breeders, seed distributors and others toured Dubcovsky’s test plots west of the UC-Davis campus. In recent years, Dubcovsky’s lab has been mapping, isolating and cloning developmental genes from the plant’s unsequenced genome and has discovered ways to boost protein, zinc and iron in cultivated wheat, according to the release.

Among the varieties the lab is developing are ones resistant to stripe rust, a devastating wheat disease, and genes that slow digestion of wheat and offer a reduced risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer, the release states.

Dubcovsky is careful to note that small-grains breeding at UC-Davis is done using conventional methods to avoid controversies surrounding transgenics.

“The California wheat growers at this point have said they don’t want transgenic varieties,” he said in an email. “There are no transgenics in the varieties we release.”

Dubcovsky, who has 13 graduate students working on the project in his lab, makes his research, varieties and genetic material available for breeders and researchers around the world, according to the release.

Online

UC-Davis Department of Plant Sciences: http://www.plantsciences.ucdavis.edu/plantsciences/

NASS Regional Crop Production Report: http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/California/Publications/Other_Files/201405crppd.pdf



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