Wheat Olympics; A test of endurance

Posted August 18, 2016

With the 2016 summer Olympics wrapping up, it only makes sense for wheat to get in on the action. Who knew wheat could be so competitive?

Finding a wheat variety that performs well in terms of both quality and protein becomes a survival-of-the-fittest to see which varieties outlast the others under hot and dry conditions. If wheat is the athlete, then Kansas State University associate professor in agronomy, Krishna Jagadish is the coach. Jagadish and his team impose heat and drought stress on post-flowering plants to determine which ones will cave under pressure and which ones will overcome the odds.

To test these plants, promising heat-tolerant wheats, including seven Kansas varieties, are grown in growth chambers and then exposed to drought and heat. But, growth chambers have some limitations, so field trials are done as well using heat tents that can be moved to different plots in the field.

“We want to be as close to the realistic field conditions as possible,” said Jagadish. “We try to impose heat and drought stress at different stages, particularly during the flowering stage or the post-flowering stage, because that’s when the most of the wheat grown in Kansas is exposed to those conditions.”

Heat spells that happen when wheat is flowering, inhibit fertilization producing no seed at all. When a heat spell happens after flowering toward harvesting time, the grain is smaller and the quality is corrupted. Most of the lines being tested in this project already exhibit heat-tolerance but if a better source of tolerance can be found, it can be incorporated into a breeding program. This means that the quality and yield of varieties like Everest can be used longer, rather than breaking down much more quickly.

“This is the whole idea; when you like a product there are many things inside that product you could change.  If you want the product to last, you might as well supplement it, and add one thing to keep it around longer,” said Jagadish. “If you already have something nice, and you can find a good donor source, you can keep the quality and yield for longer.”

All the seeds collected from the trials are sent to Jeff Wilson, USDA grain quality specialist who analyzes the grain starch quality and protein to see what is happening during drought and heat stress. With results from this year’s trial expected to be in soon, Jagadish and his team are currently starting chamber work to see which of seven Kansas varieties, including Joe and Everest, can handle the heat.

“The idea is to try to see where the level of tolerance is with these popular cultivars we are currently growing,” said Jagadish. “Can they really take it or are they that bad? Is one better than the other? And we try to prepare them as much as possible through breeding processes.”

By Malerie Strahm, Communications Intern