WSU leads $16.2 million search for heat tolerant wheat

Matthew Weaver/Capital Press Washington State University wheat geneticist Kulvinder Gill talks about one of his wheat research projects in his office on the Pullman, Wash., campus in May of 2012. Gill will lead an international effort to develop heat-tolerant grain, slated to have new varieties available to farmers in five years.

By MATTHEW WEAVER

Capital Press

Washington State University researcher Kulvinder Gill is leading a $16.2 million international effort to develop heat tolerant varieties of wheat.

Gill, the Vogel Endowed Chair for Wheat Breeding and Genetics at WSU, is the project director.

"The climate is changing and we expect temperatures in the coming years may go up significantly," Gill said. "Tolerance to heat has not been addressed in wheat in any systematic matter."

Wheat yield is reduced a significant amount for temperatures above 82 degrees Fahrenheit, he said.

The goal is to have the first "climate resilient" wheat varieties developed and available to growers in five years. Gill said the project is starting from scratch, but will use fast-breeding methods developed in the last few years. They will increase the heat tolerance in existing varieties.

"We will have to look at every single angle," Gill said. "We don't have any markers, we don't know the genetics of the trait. We don't know a whole lot about this trait. Whatever information we learn, we will transfer into the variety development process."

Wheat and rice are relatives, but rice holds up at 100 degrees Fahrenheit, while wheat loses half of its yield at that temperature, Gill said.

"Even for a day or two, if temperatures go up, which happens almost every year, the plant loses yield potential," Gill said.

Gill said the project is strictly devoted to heat tolerance, but the connection between heat and drought is obvious.

"We are not promising to improve water use efficiency, but we are going to look at it," Gill said. "It's a no-brainer."

According to a WSU press release, the research will be supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and India's Directorate of Wheat Research and is part of the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future.

Support from USAID will leverage more than $11 million from other partners and fund research at WSU and project-related activities in India, according to WSU.

The effort includes researchers from Kansas State University, DuPont Pioneer, DWR and India's National Bureau of Plant Genetics Resources, GB Pant University, CCS Meerut University, Punjab Agricultural University, Rajendra Agricultural University and two companies in India.

As many as 35 doctoral students and 30 post-doctoral or research fellows will be involved.

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