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New Variety May Be Just the Beginning of New Wheat Research Era

A new wheat variety is resistant to a couple of major disease pressures and performs under fairly harsh conditions, moisture-wise, making it a good fit for farmers in some key wheat-growing regions in the U.S. Its development could be on the front end of a rapidly accelerating pace for wheat innovation, one expert says.

One hundred years ago, plant breeder and botanist Mark Carleton created the Kanred hard red winter wheat variety, one that possessed some rust resistance, ultimately making it extremely popular among Kansas wheat farmers and a major building block for a lot of varieties during the last century. The latest of those, introduced on the centennial of Carleton's original Kanred introduction, is Kanmark.

The new variety, says Kansas State University Extension wheat specialist Allan Fritz, possesses resistance to leave and stripe rust and, though it's a shorter plant, performs well in both irrigated and dryland systems.

"We think Kanmark is best adapted to the western part of the state of Kansas. We have about a 3-bushel advantage over Tam 111," Fritz says. "I was a little concerned about how short it might get under drought, but it maintained its height pretty well this year under severe drought."

Fritz calls Kanmark -- named for Carleton -- "more of a workhorse than a racehorse," and adds that, in testing, it scored consistently within the top third of total varieties from a yield standpoint. It is susceptible to other diseases, namely scab and powdery mildew, but Fritz says the latter infection is of little concern considering the more arid nature of the geography earmarked for the new variety.

"It does have some genetics in the background for race nonspecific rust resistance, which should make it more durable," he says of the variey that will be available next year. Further down the road, there are other lines based on Kanmark that will be available to farmers in 2016 and beyond, Fritz adds.

Traits like rust resistance, which are expressions of genetic makeup, could become more common in future wheat research thanks to the work of an international group of crop researchers. The International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium comprising 1,000 researchers in 57 nations finished a "draft sequence of the bread wheat genome" earlier this year, one of the more complex tasks of its kind in the industry, according to Kansas State University plant pathologist Jesse Poland, who was part of the group.

"A way to look at a genome sequence is it's sort of a road map or blueprint," he says. "If you're trying to identify genes that have an effect on yield, it really helps to have a road map rather than wandering around the wilderness not knowing what you're doing."

That road map for wheat, a sort of map showing the plant's genetic makeup and how genes are paired and matched, is much more complex for wheat than it is for any other crop; Poland says the wheat genome is roughly five times larger than the human genome, six times larger than the corn genome, and 50 times larger than the rice genome.

Moving forward, Poland says decoding the wheat genome is an enormous step toward new developments for the crop that could yield major yield improvements. However, that's not quite within researchers' reach yet.

"It's still a long process to find and identify those important genes, but now we have a road map," Poland says. "We're not necessarily sure where we're going, but we know there's a road now."

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