NORWICH, ENGLAND — A discovery made by researchers at the John Innes Centre in Norwich and an international team of researchers could lead to wheat varieties that are more resistant to drought. The researchers found a height-reducing gene Rht13 that allows seeds to be planted deeper in the soil, giving them more access to moisture.

“We have found a new mechanism that can make reduced-height wheat varieties without some of the disadvantages associated with the conventional semi-dwarfing genes,” said Philippa Borrill, PhD, group leader at the John Innes Centre and corresponding author of the study appearing Nov. 23 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The discovery of the gene, its effects and exact location on the wheat genome means that we can give breeders a perfect genetic marker to allow them to breed more climate-resilient wheat.”

Other benefits of the dwarf gene may include stiffer stems that withstand stormy weather.

Reduced-height genes date to the 1960s. The genes have increased global wheat yields because the short-stemmed wheat they produce puts more investment into the grains rather than into the stems. However, when the genes are bred into wheat, and the wheat varieties are planted deeper into the soil, they may fail to grow to the soil’s surface.

The Rht13 dwarf gene does not have this problem since the gene acts in tissues higher up in the wheat steam. The dwarfing mechanism only takes effect once the seedling has emerged fully.

Researchers next will test how the gene works in diverse agronomic environments from the United Kingdom to Australia.