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Wheat genomics discoveries at K-State could improve dough quality

Jennifer M. Latzke Wheat grain
FUTURE LOAVES: Wheat scientists at Kansas State University have discovered a gene in ancient wheat samples that could be key to improving the dough strength and elasticity of future wheat varieties. K-State’s researchers are partners in the Open Wild Wheat Consortium, which includes 38 research groups from 17 countries. Their focus is to improve farm crops by exploring useful genetic diversity in Aegilops tauschii.
Kansas State University researchers look for genes in ancient wheat samples that can improve future varieties.

Kansas State University researchers have discovered a gene in ancient wheat that gives superior strength and elasticity to bread dough.

K-State’s work is published in the academic journal Communications Biology. The university’s team was led by recent doctoral graduate Emily Delorean and adjunct professor Jesse Poland, and paired researchers in the Wheat Genetics Resource Center with those in the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Applied Wheat Genomics.

Improving dough

Wheat researchers are looking for genes from ancient wheats that can be used to improve the wheat varieties of tomorrow to answer the challenges farmers, millers and bakers have today.

“Our group at K-State characterized the genetic diversity of an important gene for bread-making quality and found a trove of unique versions, as well as the origin of the known superior version of the gene already present in modern wheat,” said Delorean, who was the lead author on the research paper.

Added Poland: “We were amazed to discover that this lineage has provided the best-known gene for superior dough quality.”

Liangliang Gao, a postdoctoral scientist in K-State's Wheat Genetics Resource Center, said the work is part of a larger project involving research groups worldwide and spanning more than 50 years of collecting 242 unique accessions of Aegilops tauschii, a wild goatgrass that is one of the parent species of modern bread wheat and has a history that reaches back nearly 10,000 years.

“The newly discovered lineage is pretty limited in geography, though it may have been more spread in the past,” Gao said. He noted that Aegilops tauschii is primarily found in present-day Georgia in the Caucasus region, which spans parts of Europe and Asia.

Look to the past

K-State’s researchers are partners in the Open Wild Wheat Consortium, which includes 38 research groups from 17 countries. Their focus is to improve farm crops by exploring useful genetic diversity in Aegilops tauschii.

"Fifty or 60 years ago at a time when we barely understood DNA, my scientific forbearers were traversing the Zagros mountains in the Middle East and Syria and Iraq,” said Brande Wulf, a visiting scientist at the John Innes Centre, an international center of excellence in plant science, genetics and microbiology with headquarters in the United Kingdom.

“They were collecting seeds, perhaps having an inkling that one day these could be used for improving wheat. Now we are so close to unlocking that potential — and for me that is extraordinarily exciting,” Wulf said.

Gene bank

In a study published in Nature Biotechnolory, the group of international researchers reported the vast genomic contributions of the Aegilops tauschii, which gave rise to modern bread wheat.

K-State’s Gao credited the work of the Wheat Genetics Resource Center, an internationally recognized facility founded by University distinguished professor Bikram Gill. The WGRC hosts a large gene bank, including more than 3,000 wild wheat accessions and 4,000 cytogenic stocks — the genetic treasures produced by a lifetime of work by wheat scientists around the world.

Poland said many of the discoveries currently being made by the Open Wild Wheat Consortium rely almost entirely on collections from K-State’s WGRC. He said two members of the center, Jon Raupp and Duane Wilson, have collected and cared for the collections for several decades.

The horizon

“Our collaboration with the Open Wild Wheat Consortium will help that organization do better science,” said Gao, who lauded Delorean and Paula Silva for their work on the project. “It also benefits K-State, because ultimately we are discovering high-impact tools to help farmers and wheat breeders develop better varieties.”

He said staff in the WGRC continue to search for more genetic discoveries in wild wheat ancestors, including partnerships with wheat industry members in the National Science Foundation’s Industry-University Collaborative Research Center. Gao is leading an IUCRC project in which he, USDA scientist Mary Guttieri (who works at K-State’s Manhattan campus) and K-State wheat breeder Allan Fritz are profiling additional genes from the wild wheat relatives for potential use to improve milling and baking qualities.

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