Scientists believe that the global production of wheat can be doubled by using the “untapped genetic potential” of this crop.
Using modern techniques such as rapid breeding and gene editing, the international team behind the new research claims it will be possible to grow new varieties of wheat adapted to each region in which they are grown.
Depending on their genes, different varieties of wheat capture water, sunlight and nutrients in different ways. Scientists believe that with an optimal genome, wheat crops will be able to produce a higher grain yield per hectare.
The study, by Britain’s Rothamsted Research, used existing data on how different genes contribute to individual plant traits “such as size, shape, metabolism and growth”.
They ran millions of simulations to effectively design ideal wheat plants suited to their local environment. Comparing them with locally adapted varieties, in all cases they found that the current wheat varieties did not produce the grain.
Dr. Mikhail Semenov, one of the study’s leaders, said: “Current wheat varieties are on average only halfway to the yield they can produce, given the mismatch between their genetics and local wheat growing conditions.
“World wheat production could be doubled through genetic improvement of local wheat varieties – without increasing global wheat acreage,” he added.
Research leader Dr Nimay Senapathy said reducing this “genetic yield gap” would help both feed the world’s growing population and reduce pressure to convert wild habitats into agricultural land.
Humans have cultivated wheat for millennia, and the impact on our species has been enormous – agriculture is often described as the first revolutionary step in human civilization as it led to settlements and the development of social structures.
Today, wheat is the most common crop in the world and second only to rice in terms of human consumption, with global harvests in the region of 750 million tons.
The new study, published in the journal Nature Food, examines 53 wheat-growing regions in 33 countries, covering all global wheat-growing environments.
First, the team calculated the potential yield of the 28 wheat varieties commonly grown in each of these plots, assuming the best growing conditions for each.
The yields this produced varied widely, with less than four tonnes per hectare in Australia and Kazakhstan and 14 tonnes per hectare in New Zealand.
But they have been improved by replacing local cultivars with idealized wheat cultivars that favor certain characteristics such as “tolerance and response to drought and heat stresses, size and orientation of light-trapping upper leaves, and timing of key life cycle events.”
By optimizing these key traits, the global average genetic yield gap could be reduced by 51%, meaning global wheat production could double, according to the study.
“Unsurprisingly, countries with the lowest current yields could benefit the most from closing their genetic gaps in yields,” Dr Senapathy said.
“However, even an improvement in those countries with an average genetic yield gap of 40 to 50% but with a large share of the global wheat harvest area – such as leading producers India, Russia, China, the US, Canada and Pakistan – will have significant impact on global wheat production due to the large area under wheat cultivation.’
According to the researchers, before this study, it was not known how large the genetic gaps in productivity were at the national level and at the global level.
They say this concept of the genetic yield gap contrasts with the existing and more traditional view of the yield gap, which compares yields to what they might be under optimal management “as a result of factors such as pests or diseases, nutrient deficiencies or sowing or reaping at the wrong time.’
“Our analysis shows that such genetic yield gaps due to suboptimal genetic adaptation can be, in relative terms, as large as traditional yield gaps due to poor crop and soil management,” said Dr Semyonov.
“Wheat was first domesticated about 11,000 years ago, but despite this – and not to mention the sequencing of its entire genome in 2018 – the crop is still some way from its ‘genetic best,'” he added.