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Drought-Tolerant Wheat on the Way

Canadian non-GMO drought-resistant wheat may enter registration trials in 2017.

Look for a grinning, midsize lab-coat guy this winter, wearing dark glasses possibly, at the CFIA Variety Registration Office in Ottawa or Toronto. Julian Northey plans to be there, toting his paperwork, to register a new durum wheat for trials in western Canada.

If it happens and if it holds up to scrutiny, the new durum wheat will be a breakthrough in drought-tolerant technology.

Northey earned a doctorate in plant molecular genetics in 2009 from the University of Toronto. A year later, he launched Frontier Agri-Science (FAS), an agricultural biotechnology company specializing in non-GMO genetic technology.

FAS now has a team of seven scientists with serious credentials and a website listing partnerships with four Canadian universities as well as BASF, Biogemma, and ICRISAT, the international crops research institute for the semiarid tropics (frontieragri.science).  

The new durum is a product of the platform that specializes in water-use efficiency and stress tolerance. Other platforms are directed toward herbicide tolerance and biofuel production. The September 28 FAS durum harvest, with six lines of foundation seed, was long awaited.

“We’ve been working on this for four years, and we feel it has great promise in drought resistance. The science itself has been 10 years in development,” Northey says.

For Ontario wheat producers, he says, “We will be starting to select this (trait) in bread wheat very shortly.”

How It Occurred

Without going into the detailed biochemistry, Northey says the original discovery leading to his drought-resistance work occurred in the lab where he worked on his doctorate.

It involved the chemical modification of a protein, in a process that hyper-sensitized the simple plant Arabidopsis (the fruit fly of plant genetics research used exclusively in a lab setting), to a stress hormone so that it became drought-resistant.

“In the organism that we studied, it can theoretically happen to approximately 700 different proteins,” Northey says. “The job of my doctorate was to find out which one of the 700 was important in modulating the stress response.”

As he searched, the molecular geneticist developed a chemical-based genetic selection platform. It is a chemical-based screening process that results in non-GM plants. Theoretically, it can be applied to any crop to search for stress tolerance.

“We’re screening on a chemical, looking for resistance to a particular chemistry. When those plants are resistant, they turn out to be drought-resistant. In fact, that turns out to be about one in a million. It’s a very arduous, very challenging screening,” he says.

Chemical technology underlying this drought-screening platform is a trade secret.  

After his success with Arabidopsis, Northey gradually upgraded the technology for genetic screening into crops with more and more complex genomes. In the plant kingdom, FAS went from a diploid dicot (Arabidopsis) to a tetraploid monocot (durum).   

“We felt the genetics were a little simpler in durum than in bread wheat. Now we’ll soon be using the platform to select novel traits in bread wheat,” he says. “An amazing thing is that we can essentially take any variety globally – Egyptian, Australian, Russian – and apply this platform to theoretically improve it for water efficiency purposes.”

The publication of his recent research using Arabidopsis genetics and the genetic pathway was published last July 25 in the journal, Nature Plants.  

“It is a breakthrough; that’s why it’s in Nature Plants,” he says. “We have flipped, on its head, decades of common thinking about what leads to drought resistance with this particular plant hormone. It’s the exact opposite of what everyone was thinking, and essentially it was my doctorate.”

In previous fieldwork using the original discovery in GM canola or corn under moderate to severe drought conditions, yield has been improved up to 60% more than plants that didn’t contain the GM technology.

“In canola, the yield increases are around 15% to 20%,” he says. “That gave me the scientific confidence to start the company and work seriously at integrating this technology into various crops.

“We hope to have significant yield increases under water-limited conditions in non-GM wheat,” he adds.

Referring to the new durum wheat, he says, “I think it’s realistic to look for a 15% to 20% yield increase over current commercial varieties.”
When the new lines go into registration trials, an industry will be watching.

Hybrid Wheat By Decade’s End

Wouldn’t it be great if wheat farmers could glean hybrid vigor akin to what cattle producers get in a black baldie calf resulting from crossing a Hereford bull with an Angus cow? These days, maybe they can.
Syngenta plans to launch hybrid wheat in the U.S. by 2020. Bayer Crop-Science has also been working on hybrid wheat with a similar time line.

Hybrid wheat has long been a gleam in the eyes of farmers and wheat breeders. Physiologically, though, it’s often been difficult for pollen from this self-pollinating crop to travel long distances. Other hurdles have included lack of seed production on the female side, susceptibility to fungal diseases, and added seed costs.

However, Darcy Pawlik, Syngenta’s product lead for cereals, notes tools that will help make hybrid wheat a reality including:

  • Native trait stacks
  • Doubled haploid breeding
  • Marker-assisted recurrent selection
  • Long-term genetic base improvement
  • Boost from Barley

Syngenta is using the same platform to develop hybrid wheat as it did for hybrid barley that is now commercialized in the United Kingdom.

“Hybridization will revolutionize the way wheat is grown,” predicts Patricia Malarkey, who heads research and development for Syngenta.
So far, yields in North Dakota have been 10% to 15% higher than conventional varieties, say Syngenta officials. “With hybrid wheat, you can take the best of both parents and get an additive effect,” says Pawlik.

Boost from Barley

Syngenta is using the same platform to develop hybrid wheat as it did for hybrid barley that is now commercialized in the United Kingdom.

“Hybridization will revolutionize the way wheat is grown,” predicts Patricia Malarkey, who heads research and development for Syngenta.

So far, yields in North Dakota have been 10% to 15% higher than conventional varieties, say Syngenta officials. “With hybrid wheat, you can take the best of both parents and get an additive effect,” says Pawlik.

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