New Discovery in Wheat to Lead to Better Adapted Crops

Developments in crops such as wheat are not to be taken lightly. At around 800 million tonnes of annual production, wheat is the second most-produced crop on the planet and an essential element in sustaining the global population. Therefore, the recent discovery in wheat research at the University of Queensland is significant and may have far-reaching consequences.

A new discovery at The University of Queensland in plant photosynthesis may help breed faster-growing wheat crops that are better adapted to hotter, drier climates. It turns almost a century of research on its head.

A research team led by Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation researcher Professor Robert Henry has recently published a paper in Scientific Reports, showing that photosynthesis occurs in wheat seeds as well as in plant leaves.

“Wheat covers more of the earth than any other crop, so the ramifications of this discovery could be huge. It may lead to better, faster-growing, better-yielding wheat crops in geographical areas where wheat currently cannot be grown.”

–Professor Henry said

The research by Professor Henry is based on a discovery made in the 1960s at the former Colonial Sugar Refining Company in Brisbane. At that time, the researchers were able to show that sugarcane and some other plant species adapted to the tropical environment has evolved a different photosynthesis pathway than in almost all other plants.

The discovery involves the difference between photosynthesis pathways. The classic pathway is known as C3, while and plants with the alternative photosynthesising chemistry are referred to as C4 plants. The latter are able to capture carbon faster and grow faster, specifically in the subtropical and tropical environments. The research by Professor Henry has uncovered a previously unknown photosynthetic C4 pathway in the seeds of wheat… which is not a C4 plant.

Most plants photosynthesis through their leaves, but Professor Henry has found there is also photosynthesis in the seed. Professor Henry said photosynthesis – the process by which plants converted sunlight into energy for growth and produce oxygen – was arguably the most important biological process on earth.

“This has never been known before, yet the wheat seed is quite green when you peel it off and it is the last part of the plant to die.”

What is important here is that wheat is a classic C3 plant, which means that it is less efficient in hot dry climates. The significance of the discovery means that populations  living in the world’s tropical, which are growing rapidly, may be able to supplement food production to meet future demand. The discovery was quite unexpected, and the researchers were originally concerned that there could be a fault in their computer models.

“Eventually we discovered wheat does have all these C4 genes in different places, on different chromosomes. It’s never been known in wheat.”

–Professor Henry.

The Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation is a University of Queensland Institute jointly supported by the Queensland Government.

Photo credit: “www.colourbox.com”. Material used in the preparation of this article has been drawn from The University of Queensland.

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