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Cereals 2014: Redesigning the wheat ear for higher yields

ANCIENT North African and eastern Mediterranean wheat types could be sources of yield improvements in UK winter wheat crops going forward, visitors to Cereals heard.

BBSRC-funded work on wheat genetics underway at the John Innes Centre in Norwich is investigating the yield components of the wheat ear, including grain width, grain length, increased spikelet number, branched ears, and longer glumes, with the aim of finding a way to produce more and heavier grains in modern wheats.

Varieties exhibiting some of these characteristics were displayed on the Velcourt stand at Cereals. All originating in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, they included a ‘branched’ wheat in which the ears comprised numerous small, individual spikelets. This mini branching within the spikelet structure could allow up to five grains to develop, compared with a normal wheat ear currently producing about three grains per spikelet.

Grain size

While this trait results in a significantly increased grain number compared with modern wheats, it would also reduce grain size. However, a potential solution lay in the neighbouring plots, which featured varieties with either very large grain or massively long grain.

The aim, said Velcourt technical director Keith Norman, was to introduce some of the genes from these wild types, which have different physiological characteristics, into modern day varieties.

Winter wheat yield

It is thought winter wheat yield increases of about 10 per cent could be achieved by ‘redesigning’ the structure of the wheat ear and incorporating some of these traits.

Researchers have found a QTL - a region of DNA which is associated with a particular phenotypic (expressed or observable) trait - which confers an increase in thousand grain weight typically in the order of per cent compared to current wheats, added Mr Norman.

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