Wheat designed to use water more efficiently

British scientists develop a type of bread wheat that uses less water while maintaining photosynthesis and yield

A new wheat that can better survive drought conditions has been developed by scientists.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food in the United Kingdom discovered that fewer microscopic pores called stomata on the leaves allowed plants to make better use of water.

The research was then used to develop a new drought-hardy bread wheat.

Compared to conventional wheat, the engineered wheat used less water while maintaining photosynthesis and yield.

Like most plants, wheat uses stomata to regulate its intake of carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, as well as the release of water vapour. When water is plentiful, stomatal openings help plants to regulate temperature by evaporative cooling, which is similar to sweating.

In drought conditions, wheat plants normally close their stomata to slow down water loss, and wheat with fewer stomata has been found to better conserve water and can use that water to cool itself.

During the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Botany, scientists tested the new wheat in conditions similar to what might be expected under climate change prediction models, with higher levels of carbon dioxide and less water.

The researchers said agriculture accounts for about 85 percent of the world’s fresh-water use. On average, it takes more than 1,800 litres of water to produce one kilogram of wheat.

Yet as water supplies become scarce and variable in the face of climate change, farmers will need to produce more food with less water to feed a growing population.

The research builds on the Institute for Sustainable Food’s work to develop new rice types, which found that rice with fewer stomata used 40 percent less water than conventional breeds and were able to survive drought and temperatures of 40 C.

“Developing wheat that uses water more efficiently will help us to feed our growing population while using fewer natural resources making our food systems more resilient in the face of climate breakdown,” said Julie Gray, professor of plant molecular biology at the Institute for Sustainable Food.

In a separate study published in Plant, Cell and Environment, scientists at the institute also found that plants engineered to have fewer stomata are less susceptible to diseases.

They hope to be able to replicate those findings in crops such as wheat and rice.

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