Bikram K. Das, Ph.D., a visiting scientist from India, will spend the coming year at the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center at Scottsbluff establishing a technique that he hopes will speed up the process of developing new wheat varieties.

Das is a scientific officer in the Nuclear Agriculture and Biotechnology Division at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre at Mumbai, India. While in Scottsbluff, he is working with Dr. Dipak Santra, alternative crops breeding specialist at the Panhandle REC.

Das said the new technique has great potential to speed up UNL’s wheat development program by cutting two to four years from the 12 years normally needed to develop a new cultivar.

Das and Santra explained how the new technique works.

The process involves artificial production of doubled haploid (DH) plants, genotypes with doubled chromosomes that are homozygous (pure) and genetically uniform. This genetic purity and uniformity is required in developing new wheat cultivars. This step takes at least six growing cycles (three to six years) using traditional breeding methods. Artificial production of doubled haploid plants can be accomplished in one year.

Das is working on a protocol in which immature pollen (microspore) is extracted from the spike of a young wheat plant, where the flower will develop. The isolated microspores are cultured in artificial cell culture media to produce DH plants. The next step is to use molecular markers to identify DH plants carrying specific genes that control desirable traits, such as drought tolerance or disease resistance.

The new protocol would have the additional benefit of increasing the odds for identifying a single plant with multiple useful traits, Santra said.

“Instead of taking 10,000 plants in the field and testing which plant has that characteristic, we can filter that population into 100 plants in the lab with this technology, then test those 100 plants in the field to find out if that is the case.”

Das will be targeting genes critical to the wheat industry both in Nebraska and India, including genes related to drought tolerance, wheat streak mosaic virus, leaf rust, stem rust, stripe rust, and grain quality.

Das’s work is sponsored by the Department of Biotechnology, of the Government of India. The Nebraska Wheat Board has been supporting this project in Santra’s program for last two years. This funding has enabled him to develop the basic infrastructure at the Panhandle Center. Santra said the new technology, if successful, will help Nebraska wheat farmers by making the development of new varieties more efficient.

All the work will take place at Santra’s lab and the greenhouse at the Panhandle Center. Santra said Das’s project will utilize crosses being developed by UNL wheat breeding specialist Dr. Stephen Baenziger.

“Basically we are trying to develop a proof-of-concept technology that will be universally applicable for wheat variety development,” Das said.