Synthetic Hexaploid Wheat may win

by Morton Sosland
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If there’s any issue facing the global wheat industry that poses a seemingly insoluble dilemma, it is how wheat production is going to increase to meet expanding global demand. Of all the ways of assessing needs, hardly any says it more strikingly than the assertion that between now and the middle of the 21st century, the world will have to raise a quantity equal to the total produced in all of the preceding 10,000 years that wheat has been an essential food. In less dramatic terms, the need is for increasing yields that have been on a barely improving course for the past decade or longer. With the area devoted to wheat decreasing in major producing countries, the urgency is for another Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s that prevented global famine in the wake of World War II.

Unlike that earlier period when scientists like Norman Borlaug were able to focus on boosting yields, current research must aim for yield gains while also dealing with sustainability issues, global warming and mindless unscientific attacks on genetic modification or engineering that most respected researchers believe offer the greatest promise of achieving the ultimate goal of increasing yields. Countries comprising nearly entire continents have rejected grains whose yields have been modified by genetic engineering for reasons that make absolutely no sense based on their success in the United States where such crops are grown without effect on the health of millions. The strong objections to bioengineered organisms, even when acknowledged as ridiculous, seem to have won the day even as concerns mount about food security.

While research on bioengineered wheat continues under strict limits aimed at avoiding the sort of uproar that greeted the highly suspicious finding of a few such plants in a single Oregon field, word has come from England of progress toward significant yield gains by old-fashioned breeding. As embarrassing as it may be to see Cambridge-based scientists separate their work from what is the advanced techniques of bioengineering, it is praiseworthy that the U.K. National Institute of Agricultural Botany has revealed that new research has produced wheat that in early tests increased yield by as much as 30%. Dubbed “Super Wheat” by the British media, the experimental plants have their origin in work done by CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico that was founded with the Green Revolution of more than a half a century ago.

According to the English Institute, which not so incidentally proudly claims Queen Elizabeth II as patron, it is a “Synthetic Hexaploid Wheat” breeding program that it uses to recapture variations from the early grasses where wheat originated and which were lost through thousands of years of domestication. It is these variations, when blended with durum wheat being commercially raised in Britain, that are credited with boosting yields. The durum was crossed with wild goat-grass “using traditional crossing techniques” (a swipe at bioengineering) combined with tissue culture in the research laboratory to guarantee seed germination. “The resulting hybrid plants,” the Institute said, “produce the ‘synthetic’ seed, which is then used in crossing programs with current varieties.”

This is the way Dr. Phil Howell, senior plant breeder, says the program works: “Based on early-stage trials, we’re confident that the performance gains and level of potentially valuable variation observed, through the novel step of re-synthesizing the original wheat plant, points to a major transformation in the wheat improvement process.” As positive as he is about the advantages of what the Institute has discovered, he says that careful research means the new wheat will not be available for commercial production until 2019 “at the earliest.”

That long a wait has prompted pleas for speedier action. Considering the multiple frustrations that mark the off-and-on efforts to find acceptable bioengineered wheat, it now appears that something named S.H.W. for Synthetic Hexaploid Wheat may succeed and provide the world with the food it needs.

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