A team of scientists from University of California, Davis, has identified a new gene variant in wheat that can increase the amount of the grain produced, new research published in the journal PLOS Genetics finds.
Wheat is a staple of food diets worldwide and the gene discovery could allow farmers to grow more food without increasing land use. Increased yield could also lower consumer prices, making the crop more accessible.
“We have a growing human population that likes to eat every day,” said Jorge Dubcovsky, a plant sciences distinguished professor who led the research. “We need to produce more wheat in the same space so we need plants that are more productive.”
The researchers found a gene – WAPO1 – that controls the maximum number of grains in a wheat spike. Breeding the beneficial gene variant into the plants could delay the formation of the terminal spikelet, providing room for more grains to grow in each spike rather than ending production of grain.
WAPO1 is one of the first genes discovered that can affect wheat yield. “We are trying to make more productive wheat varieties and we are starting to understand how that trait is controlled,” Dubcovsky said.
Pasta Wheat Lacking the Gene
The gene variant for high grain number is found frequently in bread wheats but not in pasta wheats. By breeding the beneficial gene variant into those pasta wheat varieties, growers could increase yield by 4% to 5% in cultivars that have the biomass capacity to fill the extra grains.
“We developed molecular markers to select for the form of that gene to produce increased yield,” Dubcovsky said. “It’s a significant step forward.”
Previous research by the team mapped the gene and identified others that could affect yield. This research confirmed those findings for WAPO1.
Discovery on Path to Future Yield Increases
The WAPO1 gene is part of a network of genes that work together to control yield, and researchers need to identify the best variant combinations to maximize yield. Solving this puzzle can lead to better production rates.
“We will continue to try to understand the network of genes that control the yield of wheat,” he said.
Saarah Kuzay, Huiqiong Lin, Chengxia Li, Shisheng Chen, Daniel P. Woods and Junli Zhang from UC Davis also contributed to the research, as did scientists from Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Heinrich Heine University and Peking University Institute of Advanced Agricultural Sciences.
Funding was provided by USDAs National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Food Research Initiative, the International Wheat Yield Partnership and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.