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Meet the Norwich Researchers working to save our daily bread

31 January 2023

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Wheat is one of the most important staple crops on Earth, which is why researchers at Norwich Research Park are investigating how to make this grain more resilient to climate change.

Wheat provides more global calories than any other crop, yet most of the wheat grown around the world has limited genetic variation, this makes it vulnerable to a rapidly changing climate. As temperatures rise and weather events become more extreme there is growing uncertainty around the ability of major food crops like wheat to continue to meet global demand.

Scientists at Norwich Research Park are focussing their efforts on how to safeguard the future of food. Research by the Earlham Institute and the John Innes Centre is giving much-needed hope for improving wheat crops resilience and food security in the face of climate change.

Prof Anthony Hall, at the Earlham Institute, said: “Wheat is responsible for around 20pc of the calories consumed globally and is widely grown all over the world. But we don’t know whether the crops we’re planting today will be able to cope with the weather we are going to be experiencing in the future with the influence of climate change. To make matters worse, developing new crop varieties can take a decade or more, so acting quickly is vital.”

As temperatures rise, wheat, and many other staple crops can struggle to produce seeds, which has a profound impact on the yields that farmers harvest each year.

An Earlham Institute collaboration with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) recently trialled 149 diverse varieties of wheat in the Sonora desert in Mexico to hunt for varieties, or lines, which thrive in the hot weather.

The field trials found that the more diverse ‘exotic’ lines of wheat that included DNA from wild relatives showed a 50pc improvement in yield in hot weather, compared to the well-used ‘elite’ varieties grown in many farmer’s fields. Importantly, these diverse lines also performed as well as the ‘elite’ lines under standard UK conditions.

“This is science we can now use to make an impact almost immediately,” said Prof Hall. “We’ve done the field trials, we know what genetic markers we’re looking for, and we’re starting conversations with wheat breeders, so this is hopefully going to be the first of many steps to contribute to global food security.”

Researchers at the John Innes Centre in collaboration with an international team have made an exciting discovery, identifying genetic variations that can improve drought resilience in wheat.

Dr Philippa Borrill and her team identified a new height-reducing, or semi-dwarfing, gene that enables wheat seeds to be planted deeper in the soil, giving them access to moisture that most seeds would not be able to reach.

Since the 1960s, reduced height genes have increased global wheat yields because short-stemmed wheat puts more resource into growing the grains. However, this has been accompanied by a significant disadvantage; when these varieties are planted deeper to access moisture in water-limited environments, they can fail to reach the surface of the soil. Dr Borrill explained: “We’ve found a new mechanism that can make reduced-height wheat varieties without some of the disadvantages associated with conventional semi-dwarfing genes.”

The next step for this research will be to test how this gene works in diverse agronomic environments from the UK to Australia.

The researchers from both the Earlham Institute and the John Innes Centre suggest that breeding programmes to incorporate heat and drought tolerance traits like these would work as a pre-emptive strategy to produce wheat crops that will be able to cope with a less predictable climate.

Breakthroughs like this signal a new era for the development of wheat, which for many years lagged behind other crops due to its complex genome, but new technologies mean researchers can begin to untangle the genetics of traits like drought and heat tolerance.

Last year Norfolk and Suffolk, as a region, was awarded High Potential Opportunities status for its globally-renowned plant science expertise in developing nutritious food products in the Department of International Trade’s programme. The DIT will promote this expertise to its global network to attract investment into the UK from overseas and this research underlines the level of expertise in this field that is present in the region.

Roz Bird, CEO of Anglia Innovation Partnership, the organisation that runs Norwich Research Park, said: “At Norwich Research Park, we have a globally-renowned reputation for the quality of research in the fields of plant science and food nutrition, and with the support of the DIT we anticipate a great degree of interest from businesses that will consider basing themselves here to tap into the great science, people and facilities we have here.”

Main Image: Diverse varieties of wheat were trialled in the Sonora desert in Mexico in a collaboration between the Earlham Institute and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre. Picture by: CIMMYT/Alfonso Cortés

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