Heartland Plant Innovations accelerates wheat breeding process

Posted February 1, 2017

by Jordan Hildebrand, program assistant

An important cornerstone of the Kansas Wheat Commission’s (KWC) mission is research to enhance Kansas farmers’ fields and pocketbooks. KWC does this most visibly with the wheat breeding program at Kansas State University, but many haven’t seen or heard of Heartland Plant Innovations (HPI), an organization at the heart of wheat genetics.

Founded in 2009 through a public and private collaboration of Kansas Wheat, Kansas State University, and a number of private investors, HPI is developing advanced technologies for gene discovery, trait validation and crop improvement in order to deliver new products and production platforms.

The global research team associated with HPI focuses on emerging commercial opportunities for wheat and sorghum breeding areas in which Kansas has world-renowned leadership and expertise.

HPI was established with the goal of revolutionizing plant breeding and genetics and currently resides in the laboratory and greenhouse spaces at the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center. The HPI team delivers innovative, market-driven research discoveries for rapid commercialization, ensuring that Kansas wheat farmers have cutting edge wheat genetics as quickly as possible.

One flagship service that HPI provides is production of doubled haploids, wheat plants that can cut wheat variety development by four to six years.

“We’re working on a doubled haploid operation, which means we are working on a population of plants that all have the exact same genetics across all of their chromosomes,” said Tyler Suelter, research associate at Heartland Plant Innovations. “We do this by getting a cross from one of our breeders, and in this cross they have something they think is interesting. It can be a yield trait, or a disease resistance or some other trait they think will be commercially valuable.”

Once these plants are identified by the breeders and received by HPI, the team of researchers emasculate the plants, leaving only the ovary. The plant is then pollinated with maize pollen; this induces the ovary to produce an embryo but maize pollen does not provide any genetics to the resulting embryo. The embryo will have half of the chromosomes that it should, but the team will later use a mitotic inhibitor to double its chromosome count. The resulting plant has both copies of the chromosomes which are exactly alike, something that takes generations of traditional breeding to achieve.

“We provide plant breeding services to wheat breeders around the world,” said Mohammad Asif, chief scientist at Heartland Plant Innovations. “We are producing 25,000-30,000 doubled haploids a year for wheat breeders in the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Brazil and China, as well.”

While double haploid production is a valuable service to the wheat industry, it isn’t the only project that HPI has to manage.

“Another project we are working on is marker assisted selection,” said Asif. “Basically, in marker assisted selection we are looking for the genes of interest for the breeders.” Haploid plants at 2-3 leaf stage, prior to chromosome doubling, are subjected to marker assisted selection to ensure the retention of gene(s) of interests to the wheat breeders and to discard undesirable genotypes. This saves money, time and space for both HPI and the wheat breeders. Marker assisted selection along with doubled haploid technology is also helping HPI to stack/pyramid genes of interest into breeding lines for wheat breeders.

With its many services and research projects, HPI is helping Kansas farmers get the latest and greatest in wheat genetics more quickly than ever before. Years are being shaved off of wheat variety development, ensuring a more responsive wheat industry.

For more information about Heartland Plant Innovations, visit heartlandinnovations.com.

###