Low protein cultivars for baking Researchers believe new experimental lines will allow for big yield gains
CALGARY — Australian researchers are using genomics to eliminate the need to produce high protein wheat and to increase the crop’s yields by as much as 50 percent.
Robert Henry, director of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, expects the research to result in new varieties that will be commercialized within the next five to 10 years.
Bakers have traditionally required high protein wheat to give loaves their volume, but Henry’s team thinks it can accomplish that using low protein varieties.
“Not all the protein in wheat is functional. Some of that protein is contributing to good bread quality and some of it is not doing much at all,” he said.
“What we really need to be able to do is redesign the wheat so that a higher proportion of the proteins are actually functional.”
His team has identified proteins that can do just that, which means farmers will be able to produce quality wheat with fewer inputs.
“The amount of nitrogen that we’d have to use as inputs to produce the wheat would be significantly reduced,” Henry said in an interview following a presentation he gave at the Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference 2013.
“The advantage here is enormous in terms of sustainability.”
It’s not pie-in-the-sky science. Researchers in Australia are conducting baking experiments with flour produced from experimental lines.
The same technology is being used in an effort to significantly increase yields in a crop that has failed to keep pace with corn and soybeans.
“We believe we can push wheat yields up, maybe as much as 50 percent, in a relatively short period of time,” said Henry.
Existing varieties already deliver those kinds of yields, but they haven’t been commercialized because they lack the necessary quality characteristics.
“It has particularly been true here in Canada that there’s been a real constraint on yield improvement in wheat because you have imposed on yourselves, as we have in Australia, very high standards in terms of the quality of the product,” he said.
Henry has spoken to breeders who say they have wheat lines in their breeding programs that yield up to 50 percent more than varieties on the market.
“That’s a big gain. If we can get even part of that through these strategies, it’s really closing the gap between what you can get in a trial and what you can get in a farmer’s field,” he said.
“We hope with a fairly small number of genes we can add end-use quality into wheat.”
The varieties produced using genomics techniques would not be genetically modified, so if the research is successful they could get to market within five years to a decade.
“I don’t think this has to be very far off at all,” said Henry.
“I’m sure it will happen worldwide as the knowledge of this gains.”
He said it is high time that the wheat industry embraced some of these radical approaches to boosting yields because the crop is rapidly becoming uncompetitive.