Wheat Research Attracting Investors
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.”
The Kansas Wheat Innovation Center allows industry, grower and university collaboration on wheat breeding research.
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.”
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