Wheat can't stand the heat

23rd Aug 2011

Modelling by researchers funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) predicts that heat stress during flowering (anthesis) may have a bigger impact on wheat yield in Europe than drought. The work, published in the journal Scientific Reports, highlights the need for crop scientists and breeders to prioritise the development of wheat varieties that are resistant to high temperature around flowering.

By helping crop scientists and breeders focus on the most important traits for improvement, this research could lead to the development of wheat which is better able to cope with a changing climate so helping to ensure global food security.

Wheat is an important crop in temperate regions, including Europe, and is the staple food for millions of humans and their livestock. New varieties of wheat will need to be cultivated to cope with a changing climate characterized by increased summer drought and heat stress in Europe. But the uncertainty in climate predictions means crop scientists and breeders with limited time and resources must focus on the most important traits for improvement.

Mikhail Semenov and Peter Shewry of Rothamsted Research, which receives strategic funding from BBSRC, used a wheat simulation model combined with local-scale climate models to predict the impacts of climate change on European winter wheat yield. Drought has been considered to be the most significant environmental stress in agriculture world-wide. But the new analysis indicates that a more serious threat for wheat production in Europe may result from an increase in the frequency and magnitude of heat stress around the time of flowering, which could potentially lead to significant yield losses for heat-sensitive wheat varieties commonly grown in northern Europe.

Prof. Maurice Moloney, Director of Rothamsted Research, stated "The work of Professors Semenov and Shewry highlights the importance of mathematical modelling of dynamic agricultural systems: a procedure which often yields unexpected answers. These results give guidance to Rothamsted's 20:20 wheat strategy and suggest novel breeding targets for UK crops."

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