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Hybrid barley may spawn hybrid wheat

Gil Gullickson 05/04/2011 @ 9:54am Crops Technology Editor for Successful Farming magazine/Agriculture.com

Hybrid wheat has long been a distant gleam in the eye of wheat breeders.

“The main advantages to hybrid wheat are crop stability and heat tolerance,” says Rob Bruns, who heads Syngenta's North American Cereal Seeds. This leads to a consistently higher number of bushels for wheat farmers to sell.

So far, hybrid wheat has remained a dream. It's difficult and expensive to produce hybrid seed since wheat flowers self-pollinate.

This might change, though. Syngenta is developing hybrid wheat based on hybrid barley it has commercialized in Europe.

Syngenta scientists overcame the seed-production issue with hybrid barley using a cytoplasm male sterile hybrid production system. Unlike old attempts to make hybrid barley, no chemicals are used under this system.

Instead, this process crosses a sterile female parent with a fertile male parent. The resulting F1 hybrid is fertile and fully restored, and it produces seed across whole barley fields.

“This system for hybrid barley works consistently,” says Bruns. “We think we can transfer that into wheat. It will take us eight to 10 years to re-create in wheat what we did in barley, but it will be a game-changer for wheat.”

What's coming up

Hybrid wheat is just one of the new developments in wheat coming down the pike. “There is significant private investment in wheat technologies going on right now,” says Bruns. Tight stocks and rising demand have caused seed companies to give wheat a second look.

Besides hybrid wheat, Syngenta is taking techniques used in corn and soybean traits and applying them to wheat. New genomic tools used in development of Syngenta's water optimization trait can also be applied to wheat, says Bruns. The firm is also working with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center to develop better varieties.

Bayer CropScience is collaborating with the Australian research institute, CSIRO. This collaboration is developing transgenic and nontransgenic traits and is breeding improved wheat varieties.

One of Monsanto's moves in wheat was the 2009 purchase of assets of WestBred, LLC, a Bozeman, Montana, company that specializes in wheat germplasm. It is using a two-prong strategy to first develop new wheat varieties using breeding tools like molecular markers. The next phase will focus on wheat transgenic traits

Dow AgroSciences has a collaborative agreement with World Wide Wheat, LLC to develop and commercialize advanced germplasm and traits in wheat.

Will farmers pay for it?

Some wheat growers hold back seed to plant the next year.

That won't be the case with transgenic wheat. That's something that threw some soybean growers for a loop when Roundup Ready soybeans came on the scene in 1996. Those farmers found they could no longer save transgenic seed as they once did.

Bruns believes wheat farmers will be receptive to planting seed every year as they now do with transgenic corn hybrids and soybean varieties.

“There is much less saved wheat seed than 10 years ago,” says Bruns.

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