One of the big yield robbers in Kansas wheat fields happens all too frequently. Heat – temperatures above 85 degrees Fahrenheit between mid-May and mid-June can cause a yield loss of up to 35%.
One gene may be the answer. Dr. Harold Trick, plant pathologist at Kansas State University, and Dr. Allan Fritz, KSU wheat breeder, are working on a transgenic wheat that would tolerate warmer temperatures during this plant development stage. Their research is funded by Kansas wheat farmers. With just a single added gene to boost thermo-tolerance, yields could be dramatically increased.
Wheat has an optimum temperature range during the grain filling stage of 15 to 18 degrees Celsius or 59 to 64.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Trick explained that for every one degree Celsius rise in temperature above that level, 3 to 4 percent of yield could be lost. That is a problem for Kansas, where temperatures often reach 25 to 35 degrees Celsius (86 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit) during this mid-May to mid-June period.
As the grain begins to fill, it accumulates starch. This starch will account for 75 to 85 percent of the grain's dry weight, making it an important part of farmer's final test weight. That starch is converted from sucrose by the enzyme soluble starch synthase . Trick explained that this enzyme appears to be particularly sensitive to elevated temperatures. At warm temperatures, the protein starts to denature, which causes a shriveled kernel.
Trick and his team sought out a way to increase the wheat plant's tolerance to these higher than optimal temperatures. They started with rice, a tropical plant grown at higher temperatures that also has grain that fills. They found a single SSS gene that provides more thermo-tolerance when added into the genome. This genetic addition acts as a backup generator for grain fill, taking over starch conversion only when the original wheat protein has maxed out. The result is a steady 30 to 35 percent yield increase.
The team is finding even more durable genes in other plant species, including a gene from grapes that is even more heat stable and still demonstrates a 25 to 35 percent yield increase. This gene shows the best yield increase at temperatures of 29.5 to 32.3 degrees Celsius or 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit
With patents filed for these traits, Trick and Fritz are now working to cross this thermo-tolerance into elite wheat varieties that have their own heat tolerance potential. The goal is to amplify the synergistic effect of doubling down on heat tolerance.
For more on this ground-breaking research, watch for your February Kansas Farmer.