Scientist in Pursuit of Successful Wheat Hybrid

Jul 15, 2016  | 7 min  | Ep4147

In the middle of the last century, Dr. Norman Borlaug crossbred several wheat strains to develop varieties that helped save more than a billion lives. While, the Father of the Green Revolution passed away in 2009 research has never stopped.  And, as producer Colleen Bradford Krantz discovered, several groups are in the hunt for a small-grain hybrid that can affordably keep nature at arm’s length.

While hybrids have long dominated corn production, wheat producers never fully embraced the few hybrid options made available in the past. In recent years, however, seed companies have begun reinvesting in the development of hybrid wheat seed.

Both corporate and academic researchers believe the recent, nearly-complete mapping of bread wheat’s complex genetic code will improve the ability of scientists to blend traits like high yield, disease resistance and drought tolerance in hybrid seeds.

Edward Souza, director of global wheat breeding, Bayer CropScience: “If you want to measure the interest in hybrids, I think it’s interesting to just look at the number of companies that list them in their announcements to their shareholders. Right now, the five or six largest companies working in hybrids or working in wheat breeding all have, at least in their portfolios, some interest in hybrids.”

Souza, Bayer Cropscience’s director of global wheat breeding, works in a newly built $17-million facility near Beaver Crossing, Nebraska. Much of the research is focused on wheat hybrid seed development.

And Bayer isn’t alone. Seed companies Syngenta and DuPont Pioneer are among those in the hunt for the ideal wheat hybrid.

According to scientists, corn hybridization is a relatively simple process where pollen is transferred from plant to plant. Wheat and soybeans are self-pollinating plants, however, making cross-breeding more complicated.

Edward Souza, director of global wheat breeding, Bayer CropScience: “Wheat hybrids started in the 1960s with the identification of the sterility factors that would allow the cross-pollination. There have been several commercial attempts that have – some have succeeded for an extended period of time, others have failed – largely due to the inability to manipulate the genetics – that is track the genes needed for the hybridization system in wheat.”

Since 2005, a group of more than 1,100 wheat breeders and plant scientists in 55 countries have worked together to map the wheat genome. Last year, after nine years of work, the group released a chromosome-based draft genome sequence in the journal Science.

Edward Souza, director of global wheat breeding, Bayer CropScience: “Just to give you an example, the entire set of chromosomes for rice, or all the genetic information in rice, would fit into only one of the 21 chromosomes of wheat. So that gives you an idea of just how complex it is.”

Both Bayer and Syngenta expect to release a wheat hybrid by the end of 2020. While the majority of the research appears to be using information from the genome map, many scientists are still using traditional breeding methods.

Souza says there isn’t any work being done on genetically modified wheat at Bayer’s Nebraska research center. However, research on GM wheat is taking place elsewhere in the world.

Edward Souza, director of global wheat breeding, Bayer CropScience: “We are investing in a wide range of technologies primarily because we think that different consumers, different countries may have different levels of acceptance of that technology. Because of the timelines to develop these technologies, it’s hard to know what public perception may be in the future.”

Nebraska farmer and seed dealer Mark Knobel said he believes there is great production potential for GM wheat but doesn’t think the public is ready for it.

Mark Knobel, producer/seed dealer, Fairbury, Neb.: “If people are telling us they don’t want GMOs, then I don’t think we are going to have it in wheat. I think most companies and universities would be scared off of that.... Hunger and things like that change things. It’s just like electricity: people don’t like a power plant until the power goes out. Then all of a sudden, they are okay. And I think that would be the same thing with food… Some people don’t like GMOs until they don’t have some food and then I think the GMOs might be a real positive thing.”

Knobel expects that the new seeds – which can take more than a dozen years to develop - will provide a modest boost in yield.

Mark Knobel, producer/seed dealer, Fairbury, Neb.: “The incremental advancements, from what I’ve been told, is going to be more like what sorghum was years ago: probably more in the realm of 10 to 15 percent. I think maybe keep expectations reasonable.”

Knobel imagines being able to select a hybrid that will not only yield better, but also work best for customers. He imagines a niche hybrid seed market that can begin with the farmer considering more precisely what a particular mill or bakery might want with their flour.

Professor Sunish Sehgal and his South Dakota State University research team take these desired traits into account as they analyze hundreds of winter wheat varieties each year.

Sunish Sehgal, winter wheat breeder, South Dakota State University: “We have about 900 crosses every year, and we test about 15,000 head rows and in yield trials, we test about 7,000 to 8,000 plots every year to identify one line which can be released as a superior variety which is better than what is available and solves some of the challenges which the producer is facing.”

After evaluating the top wheat varieties in the Great Plains – from Texas to North Dakota – Sehgal and his team cross the best with other wheat varieties developed at the university. Those that show the best mix of disease resistance and extreme weather tolerance are tested in field trials for several years. Finally, they study which varieties also produce high yields.

Knobel says it seems as though wheat farmers have been waiting for that perfect hybrid for decades.

Mark Knobel, producer/seed dealer, Fairbury, Neb.: “I think our wheat breeder here at the university said one sign that wouldn’t have gone out of style for the last 25 years is ‘Hybrid Wheat is right around the Corner.’…. We have to come together on the cost of the seed and we will have to get enough incremental advancements out of this hybrid wheat to justify the producer using it or hybrid wheat won’t last.”

Knobel – like others – still believes, however, that the next five to ten years may finally offer the breakthrough hybrid varieties that work for both producers and processors.

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