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Bridging theory and practice to boost climate resilience in wheat

Scientists accelerate the climate resilience of staple crops, by integrating proven breeding methods with cutting-edge technologies

Norman E. Borlaug Experimental Station in Ciudad Obregón, Sonora state, Mexico.
Esta historia también está disponible en español: La vinculación de la teoría y la práctica para potenciar la resiliencia climática del trigo

As the past eight years have been the warmest on record and global temperatures are predicted to rise by as much as two degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels by 2050, the world’s food crops are increasingly under threat.

A review published in the Journal of Experimental Botany describes how researchers from CIMMYT and collaborators are boosting climate resilience in wheat using powerful remote sensing tools, genomics, and big data analysis. Scientists are combining multiple approaches to explore untapped diversity among wheat genetic resources and help select better parents and progeny in breeding.

The review — authored by a team of 25 scientists from CIMMYT, Henan Agricultural University, the University of Adelaide, and the Wheat Initiative — also outlines how this research can be harnessed on a global level to further accelerate climate resilience in staple crops.

“An advantage of understanding abiotic stress at the level of plant physiology is that many of the same tools and methods can be applied across a range of crops that face similar problems,” confirmed the first author and CIMMYT Wheat Physiologist, Matthew Reynolds. Abiotic stresses such as temperature extremes and drought can have devastating impacts on plant growth and yields, posing a massive risk to food security.

Norman E. Borlaug Experimental Station in Ciudad Obregón, Sonora state, Mexico

Addressing research gaps

The authors identified nine key research gaps in efforts to boost climate resilience in wheat, among them a need to better identify future breeding targets, limited genetic diversity for climate resilience, smarter strategies for stacking traits, and addressing the bottleneck between discovery research in basic plant science and its application in breeding.

Based on a combination of the latest research advances and tried-and-tested breeding methods, scientists are developing strategies to address these gaps. These include:

• Using big data analysis to better understand stress profiles in target environments and design wheat lines with appropriate heat and drought adaptive traits.

• Exploring wheat genetic resources to discover novel climate-resilience traits and genes for use in breeding.

• Accelerating genetic gains through crossing and selection techniques that encompass the latest tools in phenomics with genomics.

• Crowd-sourcing new ideas and technologies from academia and testing them in real-life breeding situations.

These strategies are being thoroughly tested at the Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Network (HeDWIC) Hub in Mexico under realistic breeding conditions before being disseminated to other public and private wheat breeding programs around the world facing similar challenges. One factor that strongly influences the success and acceleration of climate resilience technologies, according to Reynolds, is the gap between theoretical discovery research and crop improvement in the field.

“Many great ideas on how to improve climate resilience of crops pile up in the literature, but often remain ‘on the shelf’ because the research space between theory and practice falls between the radar of academia on the one hand, and that of plant breeders on the other,” Reynolds explained.

Translational research — efforts to convert basic research knowledge about plants into practical applications in crop improvement — represents a link between the world of fundamental discovery and farmers’ fields, bridging this gap.

The impacts of this research, conducted by HeDWIC — a project led by CIMMYT in partnership with experts around the world — will be validated on a global scale through the International Wheat Improvement Network (IWIN) and the International Winter Wheat Improvement Program (IWWIP), with the potential to reach the most public and private wheat breeders globally.

The results will benefit breeders and researchers and, most importantly, farmers and consumers around the world who rely on wheat for their livelihoods and their diets. Wheat accounts for about 20% of all human calories and protein, making it a pillar of food security. For about 1.5 billion resource-poor people, wheat is their main daily staple food.

With the world population projected to rise to almost ten billion by 2050, greater demand for food is inevitable. This is especially so for wheat, being a versatile crop both in terms of where it can grow and its many culinary and industrial uses. However, current wheat yield gains will not meet 2050 demand unless serious action is taken. Translational research and application of new scientific discoveries into breeding are crucial elements in ensuring that research outputs are converted into higher and stable yielding and resilient varieties to support farmers, and agriculture, to meet these challenges.

Norman E. Borlaug Experimental Station in Ciudad Obregón, Sonora state, Mexico.

This work would not have been possible without the support of the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) of the United Kingdom, the Mexican Ministry for Agriculture, the Accelerating Genetic Gains in Maize and Wheat (AGG) project, and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT).