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K-State Chosen as Hub for Improving U.S. Winter Wheat

K-State Chosen as Hub for Improving U.S. Winter Wheat

By Pat Melgares

The USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture has selected Kansas State University to serve as a center for efforts to improve U.S. winter wheat varieties.

The university received $1 million to establish the International Wheat Yield Partnership’s (IWYP) Winter Wheat Breeding Innovation Hub. K-State will lead the effort to evaluate research findings from several IWYP projects that contribute to “significantly improved” wheat yields, according to officials.

Hub partners will seek ways to stack – or combine -- desirable traits from those projects into elite winter wheat varieties for U.S. growers. Desirable traits may include genetic improvements that make winter wheat more resistant to pests, disease or drought, thus improving its yield potential.

Eduard Akhunov, a K-State wheat geneticist and the project’s principal investigator, said that stacking desirable traits (called trait packages) in wheat varieties helps researchers “deliver key yield traits to U.S. growers as quickly as possible to reverse the declining trend of winter wheat acreage, and add significant economic value to the U.S. and global wheat industries.”

Akhunov said the hub is a public-private partnership between national and international wheat breeding programs, government organizations and industry.

“This partnership is established to maximize the value of research investments for the benefit of global agriculture by translating research findings into commercial breeding products,” he said.

It is estimated that the world’s wheat production must double by the year 2050 in order to meet the needs of a population expected to surpass 9 billion people. Akhunov said researchers around the world already are working on that challenge, having discovered many valuable agronomic traits that pave the way for future wheat improvements.

“To fully implement these advances in breeding programs, we must put together a systematic effort to transfer traits to elite lines that are relevant to regional breeding programs,” he said. “Grain yields are critical for global food security. State wheat growers and commodity groups consider increasing grain yield at the farm level as one of the main priorities for the industry.”

Akhunov said members of the new hub will test findings from IWYP projects to build trait packages for higher-yielding winter wheat, which refers to varieties that are planted in the fall and harvested in late spring or early summer. Another IWYP Hub at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico leads a project to translate research and validate improvements for spring wheat, or those varieties planted in the spring and harvested in the fall.

Akhunov believes K-State is the right place to work on winter wheat, noting the university has one of the most productive winter wheat breeding programs in the United States. Since the early 1990s, K-State has released more than 40 winter wheat varieties.

The university has greenhouse space, growth chamber facilities, and research fields for screening preliminary and advanced lines, he said.

“The combined expertise, capabilities, infrastructure and germplasm to conduct this type of work already exists here,” Akhunov said, noting the university’s close work with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center, both located in Manhattan.

“This is an important time for wheat, and the timing of this project coincides perfectly with the investment Kansas farmers are making into wheat at the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center and K-State,” said Justin Gilpin, the chief executive officer with Kansas Wheat.

K-State’s Wheat Genetics Resources Center and Integrated Genomics Facility, and the ARS’s Hard Red Winter Wheat Quality Lab and Hard Winter Wheat Genotyping Lab, are among the partners that make this work possible in Manhattan, according to Akhunov.

“These partnerships allow for rapid, genomics-assisted trait transfer and stacking in elite germplasm using high-throughput diagnostic and genome-wide markers, speed breeding and field-based trait evaluation,” he said.

The new IWYP Hub includes many other public and private partners including the Kansas Wheat Commission, Kansas Department of Agriculture, Kansas Wheat Alliance, Heartland Plant Innovations, Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee, Nebraska Wheat Board, Oklahoma Wheat Commission, Texas Wheat Producers Board, National Association of Wheat Growers,BASF, Syngenta, Corteva Agriscience, KWS, Limagrain and representatives of the U.S. winter wheat public-breeding programs.

Some of the public and private partners are also providing contributions beyond the $1 million K-State has received from NIFA.

In addition to Akhunov, the co-principal investigators for the project include K-State faculty members Allan Fritz; Jessica Rupp; Romulo Lollato and Jesse Poland; ARS research geneticist Mary Guttieri; and IWYP program director Jeff Gwyn, who is at Texas A&M AgriLife.

“Collaborations of public and private expertise and resources are what it will take to get wheat genetics to the next level,” Gilpin said. “Having the hub of this initiative centrally located in Manhattan with the involvement of wheat growers, university and USDA scientists, and wheat breeders is exciting to see for the wheat industry.”

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