April 24, 2024

Unlocking wheat’s genetic potential

Six sets of seven chromosomes make the wheat genome five times larger than the human genome. This complexity makes wheat breeding even more difficult, but technologies like double haploid breeding have helped public and private researchers unlock potential agronomic, quality and even nutritional traits.

Key to this work is a for-profit, farmer-supported plant services company based at the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center – Heartland Plant Innovations (HPI). Dusti Gallagher, president/CEO of HPI, recently sat down with Aaron Harries, vice president of research and operations at Kansas Wheat, on the “Wheat’s on Your Mind” podcast to talk about the formation of HPI and how the company is accelerating and improving its breeding pipeline wheat.

Starting with Synergy

Crop improvement technology boomed in the early 2000s, but the application of these techniques was concentrated in corn and soybeans. The impetus to start HPI was the result of the industry’s recognition that wheat was being left behind when it came to applying innovative breeding tools.

“We were just trying to get the message across that we needed to make sure wheat remained relevant in the United States compared to other crops,” Gallagher said. “We wanted them to know that growers, specifically in Kansas and HRW (hard red winter wheat) growers, were really interested in bringing innovation and technology to the forefront with wheat because at the time, we were losing quite a bit. of land for other crops. .”

The industry faced another significant challenge at the time: lack of synergy and collective focus. As a result, a core group brought together representatives from across the industry, including producers representing the Kansas Wheat Commission and the Kansas Wheat Growers Association, Kansas State University, the University of Kansas, and private companies.

“It all started with communication. At that time, there was very little communication between the public and private sectors about wheat genetic improvement; everyone was doing their own thing,” Gallagher said. “So it started by bringing everyone to the same table to talk about what our common interests were. And once we did that, everything started to fall into place.”

HPI was officially formed in 2009. Kansas farmers, through state organizations, have majority ownership in HPI, and other members include private companies, universities and individual shareholders. The company started in Throckmorton Hall, but quickly recognized that its work to scale up breeding technology required laboratory space, growing rooms, greenhouses and other spaces for mixing soil, potted plants, threshers and more. As a result, HPI’s early success helped provide the spark that led to the construction of the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center, where the company is now headquartered.

Today, HPI has seven full-time employees drawn from around the world for their unique expertise, including agronomy, molecular biology, botany and biotechnology. Additionally, two to three part-time students gain hands-on experience assisting with harvesting, threshing, plant care and more.

Doubling Double Haploids

Rather than competing with public and private wheat breeding programs, HPI was built around the idea of ​​providing additional bandwidth and applying very specific technologies to support these programs. The first – and still main – of these tools is the production of double haploids, which essentially cuts the wheat breeding process time in half.

“Basically, we’re just taking the genetic material from one of the parents, the mother, and we’re maintaining those genetics and rebuilding that plant so that it can become a mature seed-producing plant,” Gallagher said. “And so, there are many steps along the way.”

The goal of the double haploid process is to create a population of plants that have the same genetics on all of their chromosomes, something that takes generations of traditional breeding to achieve, but which can be achieved in a single year with the double haploid process.

“We’re basically rescuing a very tender, delicate haploid embryo and growing it and caring for it until it becomes a viable seedling,” Gallagher said. “We then double their chromosomes through a process we created and refined here at HPI. And this duplication process then creates a doubly haploid plant.”

The seeds from these plants then go back to wheat breeding programs, where breeders know the exact genetic material and can evaluate the lines more efficiently in their programs.

“When they take it to the field and grow it and start to evaluate it, they know its genotype, so they can make better decisions and they can move along that line quickly in their program or they can make a decision that they need to do more crossings with it,” he said. Gallagher. “So the double haploid process is a tool that allows a better quality line to go through the process, and breeders can move it forward quickly and can make better decisions based on that very pure genetic line that we give them.”

HPI has the capacity to produce 20,000 double haploids per year and works with clients across the United States, from wheat breeders to public and private crop improvement programs. The process is fee-for-service, so it is open to the entire wheat breeding pipeline.

“Over the last few years, we’ve seen the first seeds come through our program,” Gallagher said. “They have been released to growers and are therefore very good, healthy varieties that have proven to be profitable for growers.”

In addition to double-haploid production, HPI also provides technical expertise using other advanced plant breeding tools, including genotyping and marker-assisted selection, as well as support for traditional wheat breeding programs and proprietary projects. Every part of the business, however, is built on partnerships.

“The producers are really the foundation of all of this,” Gallagher said. “Everything we do is aimed at creating a better opportunity for these growers to have better varieties so they can improve their bottom line.”

Even more to come

From discovering dense nutrients to improve wheat as a food crop to discovering traces of wheat’s wild relatives or improving agronomic traits, Gallagher told Harries there is still more to unravel in the wheat genome.

“I really don’t believe we’ve explored the genetic potential of wheat,” Gallagher said. “We’re just now getting to the point where we’ve mapped the wheat genome, and there’s still a lot there that we need to help figure out, and that takes time.”

Ultimately, Gallagher encouraged wheat producers to continue investing in the research process – both in private companies like HPI and in public breeding programs like K-State.

“Investment in wheat research is critical as we continue to discover the vast benefits that wheat has to offer,” said Gallagher. “It takes a long time. Investment in wheat research is the long game; it’s not the short game. Continue to support the universities and the checkoffs because it’s the wheat research dollars that will really make an impact. We just need to keep doing what we’re doing, but we’re also looking at new opportunities and new technologies – and that’s what we’re here for at HPI.”

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