Wheat Cluster

  • 2018-2023 Wheat Cluster

Improving Yield, Yield Stability and Grade Protection in Western Canadian Spring and Durum Wheat Cultivars – An Integrated Approach

Written By: Ian Doig

“In plant breeding, we generally don’t think in absolutes,” said Pierre Hucl, a wheat breeder with the University of Saskatchewan Crop Development Centre (CDC). “We think in relative terms.” Progress in the 10- to 12-year marathon required to create a new wheat variety is measured against the latest check varieties. In support of this ongoing progress, the CDC received just under $3 million for spring and durum wheat variety development in the latest five-year Canadian National Wheat Cluster.

“It’s really about critical mass,” said Hucl. “You establish a pipeline and manage it as efficiently as possible.” Such efficiency is key, as the addition of each new gene targeted to resist disease or climate stress may double or triple the base breeding material required to develop a variety. “The funding allowed us to do that,” said Hucl. “In Durum and spring wheat, we achieved our goals.”

Recent new variety releases include CDC Vantta, a semi-dwarf durum. It is short-strawed with high yellow pigment. Described as something of a replacement for the older Navigator variety, it enters commercial production in 2023. In spring wheat, CDC SKRush is a high yielding, mid-maturity variety that features a new dwarfing gene. To Hucl’s knowledge, the gene has not previously been deployed in CWRS wheat.

Hucl also describes dough strength or extensibility as a critical end-use trait CDC has concentrated on. In CWRS, stronger dough properties can compensate for lower protein levels to produce great bread. However, milling wheat lines and testing their dough is expensive and time consuming. To identify desirable lines prior to this step, the CDC team developed a rapid genetic test that will make the process more effective.

Also under the latest Wheat Cluster, the CDC has been able to expand the output of its winter nursery. This will make it more competitive with other wheat breeding entities and move breeding material forward more quickly. The upgrade has doubled the number of contra season outdoor plots CDC sows in New Zealand each winter.

Allowing the CDC to hire the necessary staff, Wheat Cluster funding expanded its employment of breeder chip technology previously developed with funding from Genome Canada. Like rapid COVID tests, this test can quickly and simultaneously identify the presence of several genes in a sample of plant tissue. These can include genes for resistance to disease. Again, this markedly improves the efficiency of variety development by eliminating plant lines earlier in the process.

Wheat Cluster funding has fuelled the CDC’s wheat breeding momentum. “It has put us in a good place,” said Hucl. He cites work the Centre has done to identify novel sources of Fusarium tolerance and resistance. Now that this material is available to breeders it will continue to produce results for years. It will also benefit the wheat industry broadly as CDC shares material with other breeding institutions. “The outcomes of this initiative are going to be seen way beyond the final report,” added Hucl. “The most interesting outcomes of these big projects are often seen later and are sometimes totally unexpected.”

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  • 2018-2023 Wheat Cluster

Pyramiding Oviposition Deterrence and Sm1 to Control Wheat Midge

Written by: Ellen Cottee

Lead Researcher: Dr. Alejandro Costamagna, University of Manitoba

As many farmers know, there is only so much they can do to guarantee a good crop – and all that hard work can be undone by a pest less than an eighth of an inch long. Fond of spring and durum wheat in particular, wheat midge are born ready to destroy a crop through their appetite.

Currently, wheat midge in the prairies are largely controlled through the use of varieties with the Sm1 gene, which kills midge larvae as they feed on the plant with minimal damage to the wheat. However, there is a risk this protection will be overridden by evolution: wheat midge are able to mutate through each generation, eventually becoming resistant to effects of the Sm1 gene.

While the risk is still years away, Dr. Costamagna at the University of Manitoba wants to be sure Canadian farmers are ready to fight back against wheat midge if that day comes. Through funding from the 2018-2023 Canadian National Wheat Cluster, he began research on another mitigation opportunity found in wheat genetics – volatiles.

“The chances you have individuals with mutations that allow them to overcome the Sm1 gene and also these chemicals are very, very reduced,” Costamagna explains. “That’s what we call pyramiding resistance.”

When laying eggs, midge prefer a precise moment in wheat growth – indicated to them through plant volatiles, or tiny chemical compounds they sense in the area. Researchers working on the Sm1 gene found some varieties of wheat were unattractive to wheat midge due to the specific volatiles the plants emit.

The first step in Costamagna’s research is identifying the volatiles that repel wheat midge by collecting the volatiles produced by the plant at the time they are most at risk of midge damage – a complicated undertaking, as wheat produces a lot of volatiles in different concentrations.

These compounds are then sent to Dr. Kirk Hillier, a biologist and professor at Acadia University, who uses electroantennogram equipment to determine which volatiles provoke a reaction in the midge. At this point in the process, this reaction is neither good or bad – that comes later, through a process to indicate whether a set of volatiles compels or repels the midge.

“The good thing is, we’re making progress,” he says. “We found compounds we think are associated with deterrence – we’re trying to follow up on those to see if they lead us to the genes we are after.”

The next step is to identify which genes control these volatiles and how they can be ‘turned on’ to promote resistance in more varieties of wheat – however, that can only come with further experiments and assessing midge reactions.

One of the most important factors in this research is accessibility to a large, controlled wheat midge population. Luckily, Canada is home to one of the only viable midge colonies producing enough for use in experiments.

Working with living research subjects as particular as midge has proven difficult. “Wheat midge has an obligate diapause, or pause in development, of 6 months, which makes it difficult to have insects available for experiments without a very large colony size.”

“Until you get to do it, you don’t realize the amount of preparation it takes to do some rather simple-in-appearance experiments,” Costamagna said. “We have a power failure, the temperature rises for a few hours, and we have a high midge mortality.”

Costamagna and his team continue to look for funding opportunities, and he stresses the importance of maintaining the wheat midge colony.

“It’s quite unique in the world, and it takes time and expertise to get going,” he explains. “If we stop maintaining the colony, then there is no guarantee you’ll have another one to experiment with when the time comes.”

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  • 2018-2023 Wheat Cluster

Breeding Improved Canada Prairie Spring Red (CPSR) Cultivars

Written by: Ellen Cottee

Lead Researcher: Dr. Richard Cuthbert, AAFC-Swift Current

The wheat industry is always looking for the best: the highest yield, the strongest resistance, top quality, and the goal of strong marketability. It can be difficult to find a variety to check these boxes, but Dr. Cuthbert with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada – Swift Current is ready to take on the challenge with his latest work in Canadian Prairie Spring Red (CPSR, or CPS Red) breeding research.

Funded in part through the Canadian Wheat Research Coalition’s 2018-2023 cluster, Cuthbert’s research is all about breeding the best CPSR wheat to give farmers a great crop and versatility to enter multiple markets.

“This is a continuation of a lot of work that has been done over the decades,” Cuthbert says about his work. “We’ve worked for many years to breed and improve high-yielding bread wheat varieties for the CPS red market class for farmers.”

The benefit of CPSR wheat is its middle-of-the-road quality, saleable to milling and export markets or feed markets, as opposed to its cousin, Canadian Western Spring wheat, and its place as a premium market product.

“Some people have said you can ride two horses with CPSR,” Cuthbert explains. “That’s really the focus of this, to push grain yield while maintaining milling characteristics.”

Also setting CPSR and CWS apart are the differences in quality parameters varieties fit into, such as limitations on trait selection and use quality. These reduced restrictions in CPSR allow wheat breeding programs to create higher performing lines with diverse genetics and traits, opening more opportunities for research and farmers alike.

“You can have stronger gluten strength, a little more room around milling yield and flower ash,” Cuthbert explained. “Some of those traits that make CWS elite, we have a little bit more room to operate on.”

Cuthbert and his team focus on breeding for high yield and strong diversity, found by using common genomic breeding practices including marker assisted selection and doubled haploidy production.

The research has been successful, with new variety HY2136 gaining registration support at the 2023 Prairie Grain Development Committee annual meeting. Yielding 19% over AC Brandon and 9% over the highest yielding CPS red variety currently available, HY2136 also checks boxes for leaf rust, stem rust, and loose smut resistance, and bears the Sm1 gene for wheat midge resistant.

HY2136 is generated through the crossing of CPS Penhold, CWS variety CDC Titanium, and an advanced line previously Cuthbert’s team created, incorporating high-yield germplasm from both Canada and Australia.

“It brought a lot of things together,” Cuthbert explained. “It’s from a cross that a lot of people would not have made if it weren’t for this type of funding that allowed for these intermediary steps and bringing diversity together.”

Other varieties from Cuthbert’s work are in the pipeline, also scoring high yield and milling quality – along with the ability to cut across different markets.

“It gives the farmer a lot of options, especially in regions where livestock is involved,” Cuthbert said. “You can bolster your feed and forage, and also fulfill milling markets if so desired.”

While the farmer benefits are important, Cuthbert also emphasizes the significance of this work for the future of wheat breeding.

“Where this work will really shine is in providing that stepping block and building parents to move diversity into the highest quality wheat in Canada. It allows that crossover of genetics to happen much more easily,” he explained. “It is going to take decades, but we have already started it.”

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  • 2018-2023 Wheat Cluster

Development of Spring Wheat Varieties to Enhance Profitability for Producers in Quebec and Eastern Canada

Written by: Ian Doig

Much of the nation’s spring wheat is grown in Western Canada and shipped abroad, but in Quebec and Eastern Canada, most of the crop is purchased domestically. It has increasingly become an important rotational crop where soy and corn dominate, with half the harvest destined for the feed market and the balance milled for flour.

Demand for locally produced flour is very strong Quebec. To ensure supply, millers often contract directly with farmers. Driven by consumer demand, Quebec bakers are particularly interested in flour produced with organically grown wheat. This robust consumer demand presents opportunities for farmers and challenges for wheat breeders. “Millers want more acres and better quality,” said Silvia Rosa, a wheat breeder with the Centre de recherche sur les grains (CÉROM). She recently spoke to a milling company representative who told her the outfit would gladly purchase the entire Quebec wheat crop but even this would not meet its needs.

Historically, the end-use quality performance of eastern spring wheat varieties in Quebec and Eastern Canada have been affected by multiple factors. Weather variability and the prevalence of Fusarium head blight (FHB) negatively impact its economic potential. For years, the price of milling wheat has remained relatively close to that of feed wheat, favouring high-yielding wheat, whose bread quality is generally inappropriate.

The CÉROM spring wheat development program improves agronomics and end-use qualities that will allow farmers to profit from domestic demand. The 2018 to 2023 Canadian Wheat Cluster provided $856,686 to fund the Centre’s breeding activities. Additional funds were provided by Producteurs de grains du Québec and SeCan.

On the agronomic side of the breeding equation, Rosa emphasizes the improvement of FHB resistance is critical to the spring wheat disease package. And while leaf rust can be problematic for farmers, stripe rust is an emerging concern. To address the needs of millers and bakers, breeders must combine resistance and yield gains with increased protein content and gluten strength.

The work has been supported by the Centre’s indoor quality lab. Built under the previous wheat cluster, it became operational under the latest. Here, researchers conveniently screen breeding lines for desired quality traits indoors rather than in the field.

The Centre also employs breeding material from across the Americas to identify cultivars broadly adaptable to climate change. Rosa leads the project, which last year began testing an array of international cultivars in Quebec, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. “Among these countries the environmental conditions are very different,” she said. “In the past, I had tested some South American cultivars here and adaptability was very good. I am testing in all these locations to find cultivars that could perform well in all, which should help to find genomic regions associated with resilience to stress and broad adaptability.”

The CÉROM track record in wheat breeding speaks for itself. In 2019, AAC Maurice and AAC Volta was registered to commercialization in the Maritimes, Ontario and Quebec. The two varieties were made available to farmers in 2022. Two additional cultivars have been supported for registration during the last two year and are open to commercial adoption.

“It’s a very important project,” said Rosa. “I hope we can continue with the work.”

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  • 2018-2023 Wheat Cluster

Winter Wheat Breeding and Germplasm Development for Disease Resistance

Written by: Michelle Boulton

Curt McCartney joined the University of Manitoba’s Department of Plant Science in November 2020, which is when he took over this project from long-time winter wheat breeder Anita Brûlé-Babel.

He says that, while this was not a large wheat cluster project, it provided valuable support for the University of Manitoba’s winter wheat breeding program and additional disease resistance testing capacity for other winter wheat breeding programs. For example, they were testing breeding material from the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada breeding program in Lethbridge, Alberta for leaf- and stem-rust-resistance and Fusarium head blight (FHB) resistance.

Winter wheat only accounts for about 5% of wheat production in western Canada, but McCartney would like to see an increase in winter wheat production on the prairies. Not only does winter wheat offer yields that are 15 to 25 percent higher than spring wheat, growing winter wheat supports soil conservation and gives producers options to mitigate risk associated with climate change.

“One of the major reasons why winter wheat isn’t as common as spring wheat in the prairies is that winter survival is a little less predictable. So, we’d like to improve that,” says McCartney. “The other is quality. We’re trying to improve the quality of winter wheat so that it will be closer to Canada western red spring wheat. If we can do that, the price would be equivalent to the spring wheat. And winter wheat has a yield advantage over spring wheat.”

Winter wheat is much more common in eastern Canada, where winters tend to be milder and they have a bit more snow cover, which helps the crop overwinter. McCartney is exploring some of the newer genetic information to see if he can improve the winter hardiness of winter wheat adapted for western Canada.

For example, they’re experimenting with new dwarfing genes. Most of the current wheat cultivars incorporate semi-dwarfing genes known as the “green revolution” genes. Green revolution genes are associated with a shorter coleoptile (the protective sheath covering the emerging shoot), explains McCartney. “So, you have to seed a little bit shallower to ensure they emerge properly. We’re exploring the possibility of swapping out the old dwarfing genes with new ones that don’t have an effect on coleoptile length.”

Another shortcoming of the green revolution genes is that the dwarfing phenotype is associated with increased FHB susceptibility, but McCartney says genetic control for FHB resistance is more complicated than for other diseases. “More genes are involved, and testing for resistance is not as easy. Both of those factors make it difficult to improve that trait,” he concedes.

Fortunately, Manitoba is an ideal place for an FHB nursery. “It works quite well in Manitoba, because our general growing conditions are quite conducive to the disease and farmers in the area get a lot of FHB.”

The third objective of the program was to provide undergraduate student training in field, greenhouse, and laboratory techniques. “Students are involved with operating the disease nurseries, seeing how our yield trials are conducted, collecting data, and getting a broad overview of how these types of experiments are conducted,” explains McCartney.

He says the summer student opportunities are an important way to generate interest in this kind of research. “This is how we can identify or spark interest in graduate studies and identify people who would be interested in becoming future plant breeders or people working in other aspects of crop research. That’s how I got into this—I was a summer student with Anita Brûlé-Babel, who was the previous breeder in this program. It was quite a while ago, obviously, but that changed the direction of my education and ultimately my career.”

This Wheat Cluster project received funding from the Alberta Wheat Commission and the Western Grains Research Foundation.

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  • 2018-2023 Wheat Cluster

Building Economic Value in Winter Wheat Through Improved Hard Red and Soft White Genetics for Eastern Canada

Written by: Michelle Boulton

When Gavin Humphreys assumed his position as the senior research scientist (winter wheat improvement) with the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Ottawa Research and Development Centre in 2014, his first order of business was rebuilding the program. He wanted to build a breeding pipeline, develop new germplasm, and produce new varieties of hard red winter wheat and (to a much lesser extent) soft white winter wheat adapted to Eastern Canada.

While “hard red winter wheat is a higher-value commodity in eastern Canada than soft red winter, which accounts for 80 to 85 percent of the acreage,” Humphreys says, “the lion’s share of the breeding effort goes into soft red winter wheat. If we can provide better varieties of hard red winter wheat, hopefully we can increase the market share of these varieties.”

“One of the advantages of winter wheat is 25 to 30 percent higher yield than spring wheat,” says Humphreys. “If we could get that advantage into more acreage, we could increase crop production by 25 to 30% using the same arable area. And that’s a big positive, not only for farmers but also for the productivity of agriculture in Canada.”

He’s been running two breeding pipelines. One is a doubled haploid pipeline, “which produces material that’s highly inbred in the laboratory in about a year and a half, when it would normally take five or six years to get to that point,” he explains. The other is a germplasm-based system in the field using a more traditional modified bulk breeding process, with plantings every fall and selection the following summer.

A new line (Ug9-26-32) made its way through the pipeline and was supported for registration a couple of years ago, but Humphreys says it didn’t get commercialized. “That was quite exciting for us because it was one of the first hard red winter wheats to get through that process, and the first one in about 15 years that the Ottawa program got to a point where it could be registered.”

The new line had very good end-use quality and it had moderate fusarium head blight resistance, but it was about 2% lower yielding than the check. “In Ontario, grain yield trumps everything,” he says. “If you don’t have yield, you’ll have some difficulty getting your lines supported and finding commercial partners.”

Humphreys is quite enthusiastic about some of the material he’s currently moving from the breeding program into the registration process. “The previous breeder at AAFC-Ottawa focussed on soft wheat, so I started from nothing, really. So, it’s going to take another year or so to get more material into the registration process,” he says. “We have some very exciting material in the first and second year of testing in Ontario and the Maritimes. So, we should be able to offer a variety to producers sometime in the next couple of years.”

Humphreys is trying to address two major challenges. One is winter hardiness. “Having superior resistance to winter stresses is absolutely critical, not only to retain the winter wheat acreage we have now, but, ideally, to expand the acreage,” he says.

The other is Fusarium head blight (FHB). He asserts that, “FHB has existed for a long time, and some will argue that we’ll never make progress on it, but I don’t believe that’s true. I think we know a lot more now than we did 10 or 20 years ago when the disease first started to become a real problem.”

Humphreys says improving FHB resistance will not only add to a farmer’s arsenal of protection against FHB damage, it will also minimize fungicide usage and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, distribution, and application of fungicides.

“Coupled with higher yields, higher quality grain with less FHB damage will also give producers more value per weight for the wheat they’re producing,” he says.

Although Humphreys has been in his position for nine years, he still feels like he’s “kind of new to the system.” Despite that, he was very pleased by how quickly he was able to build collaborative relationships through the Canadian National Wheat Cluster. “Through the last round of cluster funding, I’ve seen tremendous growth in my capacity to work with others, offer plot exchanges, exchange germplasm, build on ideas that strengthen my breeding program, and hopefully also strengthen other breeding programs,” he concludes.

This Wheat Cluster project received funding from the Canadian Field Crop Research Alliance.

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  • 2018-2023 Wheat Cluster

Improving Profitability of Hard Red Spring Wheat for Eastern Canada Through Superior Grain Yields, Fusarium Head Blight Resistance, and Improved End-Use Quality

Written by: Michelle Boulton

Although his program is small, Andrew Burt, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), Ottawa Research and Development Centre, has big ambitions. His research is focused on improving the profitability of hard red spring wheat for eastern Canada through better grain yields, Fusarium head blight (FHB) resistance, and end-use quality.

“Almost 90 percent of wheat production is in western Canada. And of the remaining 10 percent in eastern Canada, a lot is winter wheat. So, in terms of scale, we’re small,” he concedes, “but we’re covering a lot of territory—eastern Canada is a huge and varied landscape.”

He says one of the big strengths of his program is that it’s part of the AAFC network. “One of the important roles of public breeding is serving markets that would otherwise be ignored. This program does that by focusing on the specific needs of growers in eastern Canada.”

Through AAFC’s spring wheat breeding networks, Burt accesses western germplasm and has been incorporating Canada western red spring (CWRS) wheat cultivars and breeding lines from the Swift Current and Brandon programs into most of his crosses in the last five years. He tests them in two key breeding sites—the Ottawa Research Centre and the Charlottetown Research Centre—where the two sister arms of his program are run.

“Historically, eastern wheat has been higher yielding than western wheat. Breeders in eastern Canada have been more focused on Fusarium and powdery mildew resistance, and less focused on end-use quality,” says Burt. “Investment in western Canadian breeding has probably put an end to the yield differential between eastern and western hard red spring varieties, but we still have lower end-use quality.”

Burt sees that disparity as an opportunity for growth in the Canadian eastern red spring (CERS) class. “Something like 60% of what is milled in eastern Canada is CWRS wheat. If we can achieve quality that rivals CWRS wheat, perhaps we can capture interest in locally produced wheat and shorter supply chains to improve that percentage.”

Burt’s breeding efforts have been “trying to introduce higher grain quality, higher protein content, and better milling quality. That’s not an easy recipe to achieve—anytime you’re trying to make a fairly large change in protein quality or protein content, you’re doing well if you’re maintaining yield,” he says.

A persistent threat to grain quality is FHB. “The Fusarium challenge isn’t going away,” asserts Burt. “With increasing variability in the climate and increasing heat, it’s going to be a challenge to improve on the level of resistance we have in eastern Canada.”

Burt has been in his current position since 2018 and, while he has not yet successfully put forward a new variety for commercialization, two lines from his program were just supported for registration at the February 2023 Quebec Recommending Committee for Cereal meeting—ECSW237 is a feed wheat and ECSW244 is a milling wheat (suitable for the CERS market class). In 2019, a semi-dwarf line with moderate resistance to FHB was accepted for registration in Ontario, but he says the protein quantity was just too low to be supported in the CERS class, and it hasn’t been picked up for commercialization. He’s feeling more confident about some of the lines still coming in his pipeline.

“It’s a little disappointing to get to the end of five years and say, ‘it has been a rebuilding time,’ but that’s the reality,” he explains. “It takes a long time to steer these programs, and I think we’re in a good position for the next 5 to 10 years. We have a lot of material in the pipeline that combines higher protein with good end-use quality and, in some cases, high yield.”

This Wheat Cluster project received funding from the Canadian Field Crop Research Alliance.

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  • 2018-2023 Wheat Cluster

Pre-Breeding and Development of Breeding Tools to Diversify Disease Resistance in Bread Wheat

Written by: Ellen Cottee

Lead Researcher: Dr. Colin Hiebert, AAFC – Morden

For much of history, farmers have been interested in growing the best crops possible. Starting in the 1800s, they realized saving seeds of their best performing plants would give them a higher yield – a primitive version of the selective breeding practices common in the industry today.

Many years have passed, and producers and researchers are living in the future – a world in which a stalk of wheat can be reduced its genome, giving incredible insight into the genes that help it survive, thrive and even fight off disease.

As a wheat geneticist, Dr. Colin Hiebert of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada – Morden has long been fascinated with the minutia of the important crop and how it can be improved for Canadian growers. His latest undertaking, Pre-Breeding and Development of Breeding Tools, is designed to take findings from the lab to the field.

Part of the 2018 – 2023 Canadian National Wheat Cluster, the project has three components: pre-breeding, DNA marker development and new resistant gene activities. Each of these contribute improved wheat breeding processes, especially in the areas of resistance and diversity.

“What motivated me to put in this proposal – and my proposal for the next cluster – is to try and fill some of the gaps that exist in the research continuum,” Hiebert explained. “You want to make certain that those [genetic] discoveries end up in the breeding programs and in the farmer’s field.”

Pre-breeding activities in particular are designed to bridge this gap. Genetic research into wheat relatives produces many interesting findings on disease resistance, performance and more – but these crops aren’t adapted for cultivation, nor are they practical for traditional breeding programs to use.

Through pre-breeding, those genetics can now be distilled into germplasm ready to be crossed with domesticated, tried-and-true wheat varieties for breeders to work with, creating new varieties with specific desired traits.

In addition, DNA markers, which indicate the genes specifically responsible for traits such as disease resistance, allow pre-breeding researchers to select or ‘stack’ genes that can increase resistance in the crop. Breeders can also use these markers to better select parents for crossbreeding and assessing which resistance genes made it through the whole breeding process.

“What we’re trying to do is develop markers that have a high predictive value, so you can use it in different ways,” Hiebert says. “DNA markers are really useful tools.”

Hiebert and his team have focused specifically on identifying genes resistant to common wheat diseases, including stem rust, leaf rust and ergot – and the results are promising.

Through genetic mapping and testing of a wheat line from Kyoto University in Japan, the team discovered a gene broadly effective against both North American and exotic races of stem rust.

“A gene like that is interesting because it gives us resistance to pathogens present today, and gives us some risk mitigation in the event that some of these exotic strains of the fungus end up being inadvertently transported to North America,” Hiebert explained.

As the current research cluster comes to a close, the team has germplasm ready to share with breeding programs and even more knowledge of the wheat genome. While pre-breeding and other genetic research doesn’t always result in an immediate in-the-field solution, Hiebert maintains it is critical to the future of plant breeding.

“Having the support of producer groups and other funders, for them to have that foresight to invest money now even when the payoff isn’t immediate, is great,” Hiebert said. “We know we need tools down the road, and if we don’t start now, the well runs dry.”

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  • 2018-2023 Wheat Cluster

Application of Biotechnological Tools to Wheat Breeding

Written by: Ellen Cottee

Lead Researcher: Dr. Ron Knox, AAFC – Swift Current

Across the wheat industry, breeders, growers and researchers alike are on the hunt for more ways to improve the crop. From increased yields to higher quality, pest and disease resistance to protein levels, there are several ways to ensure Canada’s wheat is the best it can be.

It will take all members of this chain and many solutions to create the varieties that will carry Canada’s wheat into the future, but one key component is the introduction of biotechnological tools to the process.

Dr. Ron Knox of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada – Swift Current has been working on plant pathology and breeding efforts for much of his career. Leading his newest project, Application of Biotechnological Tools to Wheat Breeding, Knox and his team seek to accelerate and improve breeding via futuristic-sounding methods.

Part of the 2018-23 Canadian Wheat Research Cluster, the project uses marker-assisted breeding and double haploid production to assist breeders in their efforts to bring forward the best wheat yet.

“Breeders have been working at their craft for decades, so it’s getting harder and harder to make those increases in performance, yield, all those components,” Knox explained. “The application of these technologies is a tool that allows them to continue making those marginal increases.”

Marker-assisted breeding allows researchers to use established or newly developed markers to identify key traits in lines of wheat selected for crossbreeding as parents. Once these lines are confirmed to have desired traits, researchers and traditional breeders work together to plan and construct crosses around these traits and their expression in the plant.

Another component of the project’s research is in double haploid production, a process that can cut traditional breeding from five or six plant generations to one. Focusing on the female gamete of the plant, researchers stimulate egg division in a wheat plant using corn, as no genetic material from the corn carries through. Because the embryo comes from a single plant, it is genetically pure or homogenous, creating predictability for breeding.

It’s not just the time saved on breeding cycles that benefits breeders; double haploid breeding also ensures fewer recombinations, or shuffling of the genes, making it easier to predict the genes and traits the plant will exhibit.

“Our strategy is to use simple crosses of elite lines that have complementary traits,” Knox said. “Getting combinations of genes and being able to recycle that improved line back into breeding as a parent, that greatly improves the breeding efficiencies.”

This research will allow traditional breeders to create new varieties with strong economic benefits, including pest resistance, performance in the field and quality.

Looking to the future of biotechnological tools in wheat breeding, Knox believes greater understanding of the wheat genome will identify further trait markings, such as yield and stress resistance. Putting this research into breeding, however, isn’t necessarily simple.

“Those traits have a lot of interaction with the environment, so it’s that much more challenging to validate the markers – we have to sample environments, which means testing populations in multiple locations over multiple years, he explained. “That takes patience and continued support.”

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  • 2018-2023 Wheat Cluster

A New Variety of Durum Wheat with Intermediate Resistance to Fusarium Head Blight. This Changes Everything!

Written by: Michelle Boulton

Canada’s southern prairies are well suited to durum wheat production, which makes us one of the world’s top producers. Growing demand and higher prices are good news. However, producers are also facing growing challenges, such as increasingly unpredictable weather because of climate change and susceptibility to fungal diseases like Fusarium head blight (FHB).

Durum was introduced in Canada in the 1910s and breeders released the first Canadian variety in 1963. From the very beginning, durum has remained stubbornly susceptible to FHB. That is, until a new variety was developed by breeder Yuefeng Ruan and his team at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Swift Current Research and Development Centre.

“This new variety, called AAC Schrader, is the first durum variety with intermediate resistance to FHB,” explains Ruan. “It has really changed a lot of things.”

“When I submitted my proposal for funding five years ago, we used Strongfield as a check in registration trials. Now, we will be using AAC Schrader as a check. So, everything — yield, FHB resistance, quality, and drought tolerance — will be compared to AAC Schrader.”

FHB is prevalent in wet years, especially when the moisture comes early in the growing season. “If there’s a lot of moisture at flowering, you’ll see FHB infections right away,” explains Ruan.

While southwestern Saskatchewan is typically semi-arid, making it a good place to do drought tolerance breeding for crops like durum, “climate change is resulting in unpredictable weather conditions during the field season, such as one year being dry and the next being wet.” This has made FHB the biggest threat to durum production.

Because the environment has such an influence on FHB, it adds challenges for breeders. “In the FHB nurseries, depending on the environmental conditions, a variety could look like it has FHB resistance, but in another nursery, the same line could look like it’s susceptible,” he says.

To compound these challenges, “there may be hundreds of minor genes that contribute to FHB resistance in durum. Finding the right combination of genes is made more complicated by the environmental issues,” he says.

And breeders are not just selecting for FHB resistance. “We have to plan for a lot of different things, such as wet years and dry years, in our breeding. And we’re not just selecting for FHB resistance; we’re also selecting for yield, drought tolerance, quality . . . lots of different traits.”

Another increasing problem for his breeding program is ergot. “We haven’t released any ergot-resistant varieties yet, but we’re working hard on that,” he explains. “It’s in the pipeline, but we’re still testing potential lines.”

Ultimately, he’s looking to produce a durum variety that is high yielding, has great quality, and is resistant to both FHB and ergot. “All together, that is a comprehensive package, but it will take time,” he explains.

He’s grateful for the funding support this Wheat Cluster project has received from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada through the AgriScience Program, which is part of the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a federal, provincial, territorial initiative. The project also received funding from Alberta Wheat Commission, Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission, Manitoba Crop Alliance, and Western Grains Research Foundation.

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