Time travel to find a hardy gene

Jo FulwoodCountryman

Researchers at the University of Adelaide may be winning the race to breed a frost tolerant wheat variety, with results from a long-term trial considered 'promising'.

While researchers are yet to understand the reasons behind the positive results, wheat varieties that have a wild or synthetic wheat gene incorporated have proven to withstand common frost events better than domestic wheat varieties.

Australian Grain Technologies senior wheat breeder Jason Reinheimer, who supervises the university study, said commercial application of these results was still many years away, however, this trial was the first step in a long-term project to discover the genetics that control this tolerance.

Dr Reinheimer said results from the eight-year trial showed commercial wheat varieties suffered up to 50 per cent yield loss from a common frost event, while varieties crossed with a wild wheat suffered significantly less damage.

"We've been seeing a couple of wheat relatives, or synthetic wheats, that have been showing increased levels of tolerance, or reduced damage from frosts, when they are exposed to a common frost event," Dr Reinheimer said.

"We don't know why this is at the moment, and this experiment is the first step in trying to find if there is anything out there that we haven't looked at previously that may show some tolerance to frost.

"Ten thousand years ago there was a bottleneck in the wheat genetics, which meant the gene pool is now quite narrow," he said.

"Researchers have gone back to the ancestors of wheat to work out if there are any genes that aren't currently in our wheat breeding pools that we can use."

Dr Reinheimer said since getting this particular result, further crossing had been done and the study was now looking at the progeny of these synthetic wheats to see if they retained the frost tolerance, in a background that was more relevant to Australian growers.

"What we are trying to do is find where the genes are located that control this tolerance and then we can use this information to breed in this tolerance, and take out all the negative traits," he said.

Dr Reinheimer said researchers were cautious about how widely these results would be used, since they were yet to undertake the investigation into why these wheats performed better than commercial varieties during a frost event.

Based in Northam, Dr Reinheimer established the university's frost research program, and now supervises the project in his role with Australian Grain Technologies.

He said that since the trials had been conducted by a university, not a breeding company, the results and the long-term benefits from the program would be available to all Australian growers.

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