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Danish wheat must be made more resilient

With the aim of breeding wheat that can handle the climate challenges of the future, researchers are using genetic data to gain more insight into how wheat adapts to stress.

[Translate to English:] Dansk hvede skal klædes på til fremtidens klimaudfordringer. Foto: Janne Hansen

As if the summer of 2018 did not see the worst drought in decades in Denmark, the worst torrents of rain in Japan for many, many years and unusually intense heat and humidity in the eastern part of Canada, the climate of the future is expected to bring even more extreme and unpredictable weather.

If we want to continue having food security, it is necessary to develop crops that are resilient with regard to an extreme and variable climate. One of the world’s most important crops is wheat, so it is therefore particularly important that we can prepare this crop for the climate of the future.

Researchers from Aarhus University are participating in a new project that deals with precisely this issue: making wheat more robust for a future climate that is extreme and changeable. The project, which is led by the University of Copenhagen, aims to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms that wheat uses to adapt to moderate and multiple stress in various stages of its development and the importance of the stress for the wheat’s yield and quality. Plant breeders can use a better insight into these mechanisms to develop new and more resilient varieties of wheat that can handle the climate challenges of the future and thus contribute to food security.

- A better understanding of the interactions between management systems and crop productivity under various environmental conditions linked to climate change is crucial for maintaining sustainable agriculture and food security, says Carl-Otto Ottosen from the Department of Food Science at Aarhus University and one of the project partners.

Using a technique called phenotyping, the researchers will create more knowledge about the processes that are responsible for crop acclimation and adaptation. Phenotyping is a process whereby the researchers combine the effects of genetics, climate and management methods to study the plant’s physiological reactions to various combinations of stress. For example, heat stress is often combined with drought stress.

Conventional breeding and selection for stress tolerance can be improved if the researchers can find or identify varieties that are more resilient to climate variations, and find genetic markers for climate tolerance that can be used widely in more wheat varieties.

- Phenotyping can bridge the gap between genetics and physiology and speed up breeding, says Carl-Otto Ottosen. Phenotyping in this context means that the researchers will investigate various existing and future Nordic varieties of wheat for their ability to tackle combinations of heat and drought stress. The researchers will use physiological measurements and growth analyses, and compare the findings with possible genetic markers they have found in heat-tolerant wheat varieties.

The researchers from Aarhus University and the University of Copenhagen have in previous projects identified three markers (QTL’s or sections of DNA that are related to a certain trait) for heat tolerance in wheat, where the plants maintain a high level of photosynthesis during heat stress. These QTL’s originate from wheat varieties from Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Molecular markers close to these QTL’s can be used to investigate Nordic varieties for the relevant markers and thus improve the basis for Nordic breeding for more climate-resilient wheat varieties.


Facts about the project

Name: RobuCrop – Robust wheat for the future

Project leadership: University of Copenhagen

Partners: University of Copenhagen and Aarhus University

Funding: 1.4 million DKK from the Agriculture Levy Fund in 2018

Duration: Three years (2018-2020)


For more information please contact: Professor Carl-Otto Ottosen, Department of Food Science, email: coo@food.au.dk, mobile: +4 2290 3105