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Researchers aim to create new strains of wheat with built-in resistance to its biggest insect threat

There’s only one genetic defence to protect crops from wheat midge — but researchers are looking to change that.

Agricultural scientists in Western Canada are teaming up to give wheat a boost of built-in resistance to a destructive pest.

“Wheat midge is the number one insect pest threatening wheat crops across Western Canada,” says James Harynuk, a professor in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Science. 

Harynuk notes that in an average year, wheat midge can cause about $60 million in damage to wheat crops. That number stretches to $300 million or more during bad seasons, with increasing wheat prices potentially raising that total even more. 

Project lead James Harynuk explains how his team will analyze small molecules with the aim of giving wheat breeders a genetic road map to breed varieties of wheat that have built-in protection from wheat midge. (Video: Results Driven Agriculture Research)

Wheat midge damages wheat by laying their eggs in the kernels to hatch their larvae. And currently, there’s only one reliable genetic defence mechanism to protect wheat crops from this pest. 

“Sm1 is a gene that can trigger a plant defence response which kills larvae feeding on wheat, but right now it’s the only tool we have available to us. We’re worried the midge might evolve resistance to it,” says Boyd Mori, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences. 

That’s why a team of researchers is looking for a solution. In a project funded for $659,850 in part by Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR) and Genome Alberta’s Innovation in Agriculture Genomics Program, Harynuk and co-lead Alejandro Costamagna from the University of Manitoba are looking for alternative traits or genes that will deter wheat midge from laying eggs, the same way Sm1 does. 

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