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‘Gold mine’ of century-old wheat varieties could help breeders restore long lost traits

‘Gold mine’ of century-old wheat varieties could help breeders restore long lost traits

Historic traits could make modern wheat more resilient to disease and other stressors

Wheat Harvest in Narromine Australia New South Wales probably 1920s
Some of the historic wheat in a century-old collection was gathered from as far as Australia.KGPA LTD/ALAMY
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A version of this story appeared in Science, Vol 384, Issue 6702.Download PDF

An antique collection of wheat from around the world could breathe new vigor into the staple. When plant breeders created modern wheat during the 19th and 20th centuries, they focused on crossing and selectively breeding a few key varieties, creating a finicky racehorse of a crop: high yielding but vulnerable to disease, heat, and drought and reliant on a liberal application of fertilizer. Part of the solution, according to a study published today by Naturemay lie in the genetic diversity in 827 kinds of wheat, many of them long vanished from farms.

The research is the culmination of a massive, decadelong effort to characterize those crop populations, or landraces—sequencing their genomes, planting them in fields, and scrutinizing their traits. “It is a herculean work,” says geneticist Jorge Dubcovsky of the University of California, Davis, who wasn’t involved in the study. “This will be a fantastic new resource for the global wheat research community.” Already scientists have identified genes that, if bred into modern wheat, could reduce the crop’s need for nitrogen fertilizer and increase its resistance to wheat blast, a disease now threatening harvests in much of the world.

The landrace collection was assembled in England starting in 1924, when Arthur Ernest Watkins joined the University of Cambridge’s Plant Breeding Institute. Watkins was studying wheat anatomy, examining variation in traits such as the leaflike structures at the top of the stalk. He realized these traits might help with differentiating landraces…

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