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UC Davis leads effort to accelerate wheat breeding

A USDA NIFA grant will allow for more expansive collaboration and analysis.

As climate change compels the agriculture industry to adapt and change, wheat crops must be able to withstand new weather patterns and keep up with consumer demand. The University of California, Davis will lead a five-year, $15 million research project to accelerate wheat breeding.

“Everything is less stable,” said Jorge Dubcovsky, a plant sciences professor for UC Davis and grant research lead, in a news release. “Everything is changing so you need to be fast. You need to be able to adapt fast.”

A grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) will bring together wheat breeders and researchers from 22 institutions in 20 states, allowing for more expansive analysis and reducing redundancies. Researchers from Mexico and the United Kingdom will also participate.

“Breeding crops for the future will require new traits, breeding platforms built for quick transfer of traits to elite cultivars, coordination of breeding efforts in public and private domains, and training for current and future plant breeders and researchers,” NIFA said in an announcement.

Researchers will use molecular markers and data analysis from multiple institutions to determine genes that help wheat crops mitigate the effects of climate change. Plant breeding will help prove these findings.

“We can take advantage of the data from everybody,” he said. “By doing that we don’t need to duplicate efforts.”

A Texas team will utilize drone images from each institution to gather information on plant growth, water use, nitrogen levels, and other data. By documenting the plant life cycle, researchers will determine which plants fare best under certain conditions.

“Using technology, we can see beyond our human capabilities,” Dubcovsky said. “You can extract a huge amount of information from every plant variety.”

Genotyping will also provide insight into plant genomes. The combination of data could help expedite the breeding process and prepare wheat crops for a changing environment.

“If we can breed fast, we can adapt to change,” Dubcovsky said. “We are trying to make sustainable improvements in time.”

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