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Hope for crops that cope with adverse weather

No matter whether climate change is a concern of epic proportion or a gigantic hoax, the reality is that weather influences — drought, cold, heat — are a problem for agriculture every year.

Relief is on the way.

Researchers, using increasingly sophisticated genetic engineering techniques, are working full speed ahead to develop crop varieties that will be more tolerant of adverse weather conditions.

The genes responsible for a wide range of freezing temperatures that can be tolerated by wheat have been identified by a team of U.S. and European scientists, led by Jorge Dubcovsky, wheat breeder/geneticist at the University of California, Davis.

The U.S. is the world’s leading exporter of wheat, producing more than 50 million metric tons annually.

Frost tolerance in wheat is “a complex trait, regulated by many genes,” Dubcovsky notes, and the identification of these genes “will enable breeders to develop hardier, more productive wheat varieties — of vital importance in light of growing pressures to increase global food production.”

Thousands of miles away, Australian plant breeders recently announced a high quality spring wheat bred for dry conditions.

Drysdale is the first commercial release of a wheat variety from Graingene, a joint venture between AWB Limited, the Grains Research and Development Corporation, Syngenta, and CSIRO Plant Industry.

It is the first wheat variety to be bred using scientific gene selection criteria based on measuring a plant’s carbon isotope signature. The technology gives plant breeders the ability to develop wheat varieties that more efficiently exchange atmospheric carbon dioxide for water during photosynthesis, increasing their water use efficiency.

The Drysdale variety has not only yielded more than comparable varieties in dry years, it has been one of the highest-yielding varieties in irrigated trials.

Back at the University of California, Davis, biologists working with genetically engineered tobacco plants have isolated a gene that gives the plants a high level of drought resistance. In one trial, the genetically modified plants produced nearly as much seed as conventional varieties, using 70 percent less water. In another test, with water withheld for two weeks, the plants were able to recover and flourish.

Biologist Eduardo Blumwald believes the technology can be employed to increase drought tolerance in other crops, including wheat, corn, and cotton.

Commercial seed companies are also committing significant resources to drought-tolerant crops. Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred International are reported to be developing corn varieties that can be grown in dry areas of the Plains states with little or no irrigation, with a long-term goal of corn plants that can produce acceptable yields on 25 percent to 33 percent less water.

It is estimated that 80 percent of the fresh water used in the U.S. is for farming, and as growing populations increase demand for water there will be greater pressure on agriculture to use less.

British research scientists at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, Cambridge, England, in cooperation with the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, are working on cutting-edge projects aimed at developing new varieties of rice that can cope with a variety of climatic extremes and diseases.

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