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Case study: engineering wheat of the future

Professor Cristobal Uauy explains how his cutting-edge research into wheat genetics can increase wheat yield and help to feed more people.
My name is Cristobal Uauy, I’m a wheat genetisist and a group leader at the John Innes centre I started this research area in terms of wheat genetics and genomics because I’ve always been fascinated in producing enough food to feed a healthy planet. I think that with these technologies we can actually affect food security.
This research is very important because across the world everyone eats wheat in pasta or noodles or naan bread, so all civilisations, all societies eat wheat and they eat a lot of wheat - every day each one of us will eat fifty plants of wheat so we need to produce a huge amount of food and not just produce food but it also has to be healthy and nutritious. So these are kind of the challenges we face.
And of course, we need to do it in an ever-changing environment with climate change, less use of pesticides and fertilisers, so it is a challenge that we need to not just improve or increase our production of healthier food but also decrease its environmental footprint, so that’s one of the challenges we face. The work that we’re doing is trying to combine genetics and genomics with the biology of the plant and we’re looking at yield and that means that we’re trying to understand what are the genes that make the grain heavier or longer and wider because this influences how much yield we produce in the field.
Yield is very complicated, just like intelligence in humans, many genes affect yield so we’re trying to break it down into smaller components and what we’ve found is that we can find genes that affect the width or the length of the grain by using natural variation - that means variation that’s already out there in the field and we find that we have differences of about five percent which is important but it’s not going to get us to that challenge of thirty or fourty percent increase that we need to achieve so, in order to do that, what we’ve learned is that when you look at other species like maize and rice, these species, with one gene, you can get perhaps twenty or thirty percent differences in yield and in wheat, you can’t do that because wheat is a polyploid, meaning that it has three copies of most of its genes unlike rice or maize that have only one copy because they’re diploids.
So in wheat you have three copies and what we’ve found is that many of the genes that regulate these yield components are actually negative regulators, that means that they apply a molecular break - they stop the grain from growing so in wheat, when you take one brake off, you still have two brakes and that means that your effects are quite subtle - five percent. but interestingly, what we’ve found now is by being able to generate variations in the three brakes at the same time and combine them in one plant all of a sudden now we have effects of twenty to thirty percent increase in the grain size similar to diploids.
So this is variation that no-one has ever seen before it doesn’t happen just by chance that a plant will have these variations together but by using genomics and DNA we can actually find the mutations, combine them and we have plants that have much bigger grains and now we’re testing if they will have higher yield in the field.
With the field trials we’re conducting at the moment we’re trying to understand the genetics that we’ve done in the glass house and see how it works in the field and that’s a critical test to do because a plant can perform very well in a pot but that’s not how it grows, it grows in farmers fields so we need to put it in the field to see how that behaves. So how will this increase in grain size actually behave when it’s across a whole hectare? Will that translate into yield? Will that yield actually have lower quality? Or can we actually maintain the protein and micronutrient content of the grain?
So testing the plants in the field is the ultimate test before that goes to the breeders to make new varieties. The research we do is generally long term which means that it might take five years to do a discovery or even ten years to do a discovery and then that needs to go into a variety that goes to the field and to make a new variety it might take eight to ten years and we work with breeders to do that part of the process so it might be fifteen to twenty years before our discoveries get to the field.
It’s fascinating right now what we can do in genetics given the new genomic technologies. We’ve seen the revolution in humans and now that revolution is coming to plants. and as we look forward plants will become more and more important in peoples lives. We realise that actually instead of trying to cure people with medicine at the end perhaps we can give plants or food as our medicine in the future and I think there’s that realisation. So being able to have young scientists making these improvements in plants will really not just help the environment and food security but also help the health of people around the world.

You’ve discovered what solutions are being used to protect crops from diseases and pests, including plant biotechnology. But what solutions are scientists working on that could help us grow more food in the future?

In this video, Cristobal Uauy from the John Innes Centre in Norwich in the UK talks about his work on using genetics to improve wheat yield.

Cereal crops (such as wheat) provide 70% of the world’s calorific needs. One of the reasons for this is because cereals are very good at producing a lot of energy per unit of land, compared to other plants or with animals. This means you can produce more food on a smaller area of land. Cereals also grow over a wide range of climates; for example, wheat, rice and maize are grown in every continent (except Antarctica).

On average, every single person around the world eats roughly 50 wheat plants per day. However, to ensure there is enough food for a growing global population we need to produce at least 50% more of all the major crops. But how do we do this in a sustainable way?

One solution is to use genetic techniques to create higher yielding, better quality and more disease-resistant wheat varieties. Cristobal and his team are already making breakthroughs in this area.

We would like to thank the John Innes Centre for providing us with the location to film this video.


Here are some of the key terms you’ll hear in the video:

Genomics: An area of biotechnology that studies the structure, function and editing of genomes – which broadly means all the genetic material making up an organism. Genetics, on the other hand, is the study of single genes.

Diploid: A diploid cell or organism has two paired sets of chromosomes, one from each parent. Nearly all mammals are diploid organisms.

Polyploid: A polyploid cell or organism has more than two paired sets of chromosomes. Wheat is an example of a polyploid. Polyploidy is common in plants.

To discuss

There are many challenges involved in bringing research into practice in the field. What are your thoughts on using genetics to improve wheat? What do you think the challenges are?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • Why is wheat an important crop to study the genetics of?
  • What impact would it have on farmers around the world if we could significantly increase wheat yield?
  • What are the challenges involved in increasing wheat yield?
  • Why is wheat more challenging than other types of plant?
  • What do you find most interesting about Cristobal’s work?
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Improving Food Production with Agricultural Technology and Plant Biotechnology

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