After decades of playing runner up to corn, soybeans and cotton when it came to private investment in research, wheat appears to be coming into its own. Major companies are hard at work developing new wheat varieties, including renewed interest in hybrid wheat. Universities, state wheat producer associations, wheat processors and seed companies are creating new entities to expand access to new technologies. And new technologies themselves are creating new opportunities for developing superior lines of wheat.
“Private sector interest in wheat has really picked up, and it’s about time,” said Ernie Minton, associate director of research,
Kansas State University (KSU) Research and Extension. “State wheat growers groups and land grant universities have been doing the heavy lifting for wheat research and development. While wheat yields have grown, their increase has lagged behind corn and soybean yield gains. At the same time, improved crop genetics has allowed those crops to extend into what has traditionally been wheat country.”
Given that backdrop, why are Syngenta, Bayer, Pioneer and others investing in wheat research as never before? One reason is that demand for wheat is projected to increase by 60 percent by 2050. Another is that new technologies, such as the doubled haploid process, reduce the time and cost of developing new varieties. Cost effective hybrid seed may now be possible. Growers will get hybrid vigor, and seed producers will know that one year’s crop can’t be used as seed the following year. Just as with corn, producers will have to return to the commercial well, guaranteeing wheat genetics companies a return on investment.
That return on investment is key to the new interest. Although winter wheat producers in the East have shown a willingness to buy seed each year, a tendency to brown bag seed in the Great Plains and upper Great Plains states has limited seed company interest. In the case of DuPont Pioneer, the result has been continued introduction of new and better varieties in the eastern U.S. When the company withdrew from the Great Plains states, it turned germplasm over to university breeders. Development of a large-scale wheat hybridization method has the company back in the research phase of developing hybrid wheat for the Great Plains states and, like its competitors, back at the door of the land grant universities.
“We are the repositories of wheat germplasm for our states,” said Minton. “You can’t go to land grant universities in the Corn Belt for wheat germplasm that works in the Great Plains.”
RESEARCH COLLABORATION IS A WIN-WIN
Bayer Crop Science recently announced a major collaboration with KSU. The company is also working with the University of Nebraska, South Dakota State University, North Dakota State University, Texas A&M and Texas Tech. “These universities have a great deal of capabilities,” said Rick Turner, global head, wheat and oil seeds, Bayer CropScience. “It is win-win when you collaborate with them.”
For Bayer, wheat is already a major portion of its business. The company is already the world’s largest input supplier to wheat producers, and now sees a major opportunity developing for wheat seed. It is one that Turner noted should not be exclusive to Bayer.
“Wheat is a huge crop with huge opportunities, and more investment in the crop benefits everyone,” said Turner. “We tend to look at it as a single crop, but there are many different dimensions to it and reasons to grow it. Some use it for grazing and grain, while others produce durum for a committed contract export customer. Both growers are interested in productivity gains, but the term means different things to them.
That’s what makes it interesting.”
GENOME SEQUENCING CHALLENGES
Wheat germplasm itself is part of the research problem. Wheat is a massively complex genome, many times more complex than the human genome. While other crops and animals have been genetically sequenced, only pieces of the wheat genome have been cracked.
“Wheat is a hexaploid with six sets of chromosomes versus two sets for humans,” said Minton. “More parts of the sequence are becoming available all the time, but more remains to be done.”
Breeders aren’t waiting for gene sequencing to be completed. They are already making use of new breeding tools and what has been learned. KSU, home to the Wheat Genetics Resource Center wheat gene bank, is a center of this activity. It is also the lead academic institution for the first National Science Foundation industry/ university cooperative research center devoted to an agricultural crop. When the NSF awarded a seed grant to start the center, at least three industry partners were required to join and offer financial support—10 companies signed on.
The research center will largely be housed at the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center (KWIC), a major hub of industry/ grower/university collaboration. Funded largely by the Kansas wheat producers’ check-off funds, the 40,000 sq. ft. KWIC includes 15,000 sq. ft. of wheat breeding laboratories, a 10,000 sq. ft. greenhouse complex and 15,000 sq. ft. of office space.
Heartland Plant Innovations (HPI), a Kansas wheat initiative was the first tenant. It is HPI’s advanced Breeding Service Unit that developed a doubled haploid laboratory. Doubled haploids are genetically pure plant lines that can be tested and selected for specific characteristics. Where conventional breeding would require about six generations, a doubled haploid line can be created in a single generation, reducing variety development time from 12 years to five.
“Heartland is primarily owned by the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, but private companies like Monsanto, Pioneer, General Mills, Kellogg and others are investors in the company,” said Minton. “Academic partners include KSU as well as the University of Kansas. From a land grant university standpoint, we don’t each have to duplicate the technology at each of our campuses when we can access it through HPI.”
Advancements in the technology and understanding of the genome have made hybridization more economical. This in turn lowers the price-point for growers while offering them substantial benefits. The first hybrids to market will be non-GM and designed to deliver hybrid vigor and performance with huge short and long term benefits such as have been seen with other crops.
Turner predicts that hybridization could transform wheat as improved breeding transformed soybeans.
“Soybeans used to be a safety crop, very different from what they are today,” explained Turner. “For most market segments, wheat today is a safety crop. I envision the same thing happening to it as happened to soybeans.”
Although the new tools speed the breeding process and increase confidence that the right selection is being made, Turner said a new variety still requires about seven years to reach commercial status. The process is a balance of phenotypic and genotypic selection, he added.
Minton predicted the first hybrid wheat is still 10 to 12 years away. He insisted that no one is talking about herbicide resistance or other GM traits. “All the traits going into hybrid wheat are wheat sourced,” he said. “We think we can get where we want to go with yield improvements with the wheat genetic resources available, including wild relatives of wheat with traits from ancient sources that can be incorporated.”
This is not to say that a roadmap to hybrid wheat is yet in place.
“There are still some traits that have to be realized that are not trivial technical roadblocks,” he said. “However, if we can get the yield boost that came with hybrid corn, that would be a big breakthrough.”