Adapting wheat for a changing climate

30th Jan 2012

John Innes Centre researcher, Dr Simon Griffiths has received over £500,000 of funding from the 7th framework program for research from the European Commission, to investigate ways that wheat can be adapted to cope with climate change. The project, which involves working with plant breeders, will focus on the way wheat times when it flowers, and look at how variations in this could be exploited to produce crops adapted to our climate in the future. This will be vital in ensuring food security in the future.

When a plant decides to flower is crucial to its reproductive success, and for crop plants this also means it is an important determinant in overall yield. Many factors feed in to the timing of flowering, which take into account environmental conditions. Flowering time is also determined by the genetic makeup of the plant. The wheat varieties grown in the UK have been bred and adapted to best suit the UK climate, and so differ genetically from varieties grown in the hotter drier Mediterranean area. Changes to the UK climate will mean that the varieties that we grow will not be as well adapted, and unless plant science and the plant breeding industry address this quickly, we will face increasing problems in the near future.

The new project, known as Adaptawheat, will examine precisely how the genetic differences in wheat contribute to changes in flowering time and other developmental processes, and confirm whether these then affect overall yield. This will be done using precise genetic stocks, from the JIC’s Germplasm Resources Unit. Genetic, developmental and yield differences will be assessed in a variety of different climates by using different growing sites across Europe and beyond. Experiments will also be done in controlled environment growth chambers, where factors such as day length, ambient temperature and heat stress can be artificially manipulated to investigate specific interactions.

This knowledge will be used to produce a new more accurate model of flowering in wheat, and to scan diverse collections of non-adapted wheat varieties for sources of genetic variation that could be bred into elite varieties of European wheat. A set of tools to aid plant breeders will also be made available. The project involves a number of wheat breeding companies who will ensure that information derived from the project will be deployed into producing better adapted wheat varieties as efficiently as possible, ensuring that this staple crop will still be providing our food in the future.

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