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Rock Doc: Wheat that won’t die

Mon., Aug. 20, 2012

When I’m feeling down, I like to reflect that the gene for death has been isolated – and reversed – by scientists. Sorry, it’s not the death of human beings that’s at issue. But it is a gene for death that’s embedded in a plant on which we depend each day: Wheat, the king of cereal grains. Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers selected seeds for wheat plants that had bigger kernels that clung tightly together and could be easily harvested. For the past 100-plus years, scientific researchers have been adding to this long history of selective breeding.

The sum of all that effort has allowed farmers to produce more and more wheat on the same amount of land, giving us more grain for bread, spaghetti and my own personal favorite, huckleberry muffins.

But wheat is stone-cold dead in the field this time of year. So, to harvest wheat next year, farmers must prepare the soil and replant in the fall or spring. That’s a lot of work, and it requires fuel and other inputs.

If we could prevent wheat from dying each summer, it would grow indefinitely, like the grass in your backyard. And this perennial wheat – with large and established root systems like grass – would be in our fields all year round, helping to hold our soils together.

The first step for creating perennial wheat is to change the gene that programs the plant to die each summer. Professors Steve Jones and Tim Murray of Washington State University are two scientists who have already accomplished that task.

Death was defeated by cross-breeding wheat with one of its wild cousins.

“We’re getting good at making wheat that doesn’t die,” said Jones. “Now we’re struggling to make wheat smarter about how it continues to live.”

After harvest, the scientists don’t want the perennial plant to perk up in fall rains and re-grow another head of wheat. Ditto for getting the right genes into the wheat so that it doesn’t grow in a thaw during winter.

“There’s a balance between turning off the genetic instructions for death and getting the right genes for living through the winter in ways that work well for us,” Jones said.

There’s another basic challenge for perennial wheat. It’s more susceptible to viruses and certain other diseases. But the ag scientists are confident about the work ahead.

“We’ll get all of those issues addressed in time,” Murray said.

Murray and Jones started work on perennial wheat a bit more than 10 years ago.

“But we’re making fast progress,” Jones said.

Modern scientific research costs society some real money. But work like what Jones and Murray are doing has the potential to usher in a new day for farmers, conservationists and the billions of us who eat wheat each day.

Defeating death is just frosting on the cake. A cake that’s made, of course, from wheat.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Questions about science for future Rock Doc columns can be sent to epeters@wsu.edu. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.


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