Australian scientists speed up wheat breeding

by Jeff Gelski
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ST. LUCIA, AUSTRALIA — Scientists at the University of Queensland in St. Lucia have developed a wheat breeding strategy that grows plants under light 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The method allows them to grow up to 8 generations of wheat per year.

The scientists are using the strategy to develop a new strain of wheat that is resistant to stripe-rust and pre-harvest sprouting. Development time may be reduced to 2.5 years from more than 10 years. The 24/7 light idea was inspired by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which wanted to grow plants during space missions.

“Pending the performance of the wheat lines, we reckon that this new variety with high-yield potential, resistance to strip rust and pre-harvest sprouting tolerance could be available to southern growers (in Australia) in less than four years,” said Lee Hickey, who has a Ph.D. in plant breeding and works for the University of Queensland’s Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation.

Dr. Hickey and Mark Dieters, a quantitative geneticist and plant breeder at the University of Queensland, worked together to transfer multiple genes for resistance to stripe rust and grain dormancy into the Australian wheat cultivar H45. Geneticists at the University of Queensland are working with GrainSearch, a grower-owned seed company based in Ballarat, Australia.

“We developed 84 wheat lines, each 90% to 95% genetically similar to the H45 variety, but with multiple genes for resistance to rust and pre-harvest sprouting,” Dr. Hickey said.

The scientists will consider such characteristics as days to flowering, maturity, spike length, leaf width, seedling vigor and grain size when determining which wheat line becomes a new wheat variety, Dr. Hickey said.

In the 1990s, more growers in Australia began using the H45 variety because of its fast maturity and high yield potential. Since then many growers have abandoned the H45 variety because it is susceptible to strains of stripe rust and lacks adequate grain dormancy to protect against pre-harvest sprouting.

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