Small bits of DNA are being used by Purdue University scientists and collaborators to create new, better and more competitive varieties of wheat through work being funded by a $5 million grant from the USDA's National Research Initiative.
The goal is to combine desirable genes from different wheat types to produce plants more resistant to disease, drought and insects, while achieving higher yields and creating better quality products, says Herbert Ohm, a Purdue plant geneticist. A consortium of 18 institutions throughout the United States is involved in the project. Ohm is research coordinator for a district in the east region that includes Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri and Tennessee.
People eat more wheat directly than any other grain, Ohm says. Improved wheat varieties could provide better bread, pastry and pasta by changing genes that impact cell wall strength, grain texture, color, and protein and starch content.
To pinpoint whether a wheat line possesses a desirable gene, the scientists will use bits of DNA known as markers. Then they can transfer the gene from a plant with the needed traits to another type of wheat and use the markers to determine if an improved plant has resulted.
"DNA markers provide efficiency in choosing genes and developing improved varieties of wheat," Ohm says. "This is a much faster and efficient way of selecting the best traits than just using field testing."
In addition to research aimed at developing better wheat, the scientists will hold workshops to teach farmers and students from kindergarten through graduate school about using genetic markers as breeding selection tools.
"We have the responsibility of education and also to provide breeders and producers with the markers so that they can use the technology to improve the country's wheat program," Ohm says.
The wheat varieties currently available to U.S. farmers were responsible for 78% of the country's domestic crop for 2001 to 2003. The average annual production is 38 million metric tons, worth more than $5 billion.
However, U.S. wheat exports declined by almost 30% when 1980-1985 numbers are compared to 2000-2004 amounts. Experts say this is because many countries, including Australia, have more quickly adapted genetic tools for improving their wheat.