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K-State Research and Extension

Research team tackles problems facing wheat farmers

As the land-grant university serving the Wheat State, Kansas State University invests significant resources in labs and test fields across the state to engineer new wheat varieties.

In 2017, wheat researchers saw decades of work begin yielding results on complex genetic processes, disease prevention and breeding programs specially tuned for multiple — and significantly different — parts of the nation’s breadbasket.

Wheat’s past unlocks its future

Eduard Akhunov, K-State professor of plant pathology, is part of an international research team that has successfully deciphered all 10 billion letters in the genetic code of wild emmer, an ancestor of wheat. Their work was published in the July 7 issue of Science Magazine.

 Akhunov and his K-State colleagues can now more precisely identify gene segments that can help improve Kansas wheat varieties through K-State breeding programs. Possibilities being explored include:

  • Improving end-use quality of wheat, especially grain composition, mineral content and protein content;
  • Better drought tolerance without sacrificing yield potential in well-watered conditions;
  • Resistance to wheat streak mosaic virus, fusarium head blight and stripe rust
  • Potentially twice the antioxidant capacity of domesticated durum wheat

Even with newer technologies to speed up the process, it will take at least 15 years before traits from these wild wheats will be available in commercial varieties.

Potential WSMV breakthrough

Wild emmer holds promise for battling wheat streak mosaic virus, which caused significant economic losses for Kansas farmers in 2017. K-State researchers have identified a gene that will provide resistance to the virus.

Bernd Friebe, a research professor with the Wheat Genetic Resources Center, said the Wsm3 gene is just the third gene known to provide resistance to the virus — and the first that can do so at outdoor temperatures of 75 degrees F and higher.

The first two genes known to provide resistance to the virus were Wsm1 – identified by K-State about 25 years ago – and Wsm2, which was discovered by Colorado State University researchers.

But those two genes only provide protection in lower temperatures. Used in combination with Wsm1 or Wsm2, the warm-weather friendly Wsm3 could become part of a breeding mix that can give farmers’ much-needed relief, Friebe said.

The new Wsm3 germplasm has been released through the Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station. It is currently available to breeders through the National Science Foundation’s Industry/University Cooperative Researcher Center program — whose members have immediate access to the germplasm. It will be available to public breeding programs in two years.

K-State researchers are adding Wsm3 to the Everest wheat line, which was introduced in 2009 and has been the No. 1 wheat variety planted in Kansas for the last five years.

Three new wheat varieties

As successful as Everest has been, K-State researchers continually seek to breed high-quality lines for Kansas. With less annual average rainfall to the west than in the east, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, so K-State’s world-renowned breeders have developed three new wheat varieties, which were made available for the first time this year.

Certified seed is now available for the three new hard red winter wheat varieties — Larry, Zenda and Tatanka. Each sports different traits, including resistance to certain diseases and pests and in the case of two of them, drought tolerance.

“Producers should be excited about the new varieties being developed by the K-State wheat breeding team,” said Daryl Strouts, president of the Kansas Wheat Alliance. “There’s a lot of advancement in the pipeline, like Wsm3, to deal with the problems facing producers today, as well as into the future, and they are moving forward at a pace not realized before.”

The Kansas Wheat Alliance is a not-for-profit organization composed of wheat producers, researchers and seed marketers. It manages the release of K-State wheat varieties to deliver crop traits that farmers are seeking for their particular area.

Go to kswheatalliance.org/kwa for more information about the new wheat varieties.

Global Foods