EL BATAN, MEXICO — Five studies that received grants from the Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Consortium (HeDWIC) in 2022 are underway in the hopes of developing climate resilient varieties that can contribute to protecting a staple grain of the global food system.

The grants were made as part of HeDWIC’s Harnessing Translational Research Across a Global Wheat Improvement Network for Climate Resilience project, which brings together the latest research from scientists across the globe to deliver climate resilient wheat as quickly as possible. 

HeDWIC, led by the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and global partners, and funded in part by the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), awarded five international wheat research teams $255,258 to prioritize the development of climate resilient wheat varieties. Grantees secured matching funds and in-kind support totaling over $1.85 million.

US-based FFAR builds public-private partnerships to fund research addressing major food and agriculture challenges. FFAR was established in the 2014 farm bill to increase public agriculture research investments, fill knowledge gaps and complement the US Department of Agriculture’s research agenda.

“Wheat is one of our fundamental crops, and we must spare no effort in protecting it from current and future challenges,” said Dr. Saharah Moon Chapotin, executive director, FFAR. “Global collaborations are necessary to address global concerns, and these grants are bringing together international teams to share and build the science and research that will ensure the stability of this crop.”

The challenges to wheat are global, but each region faces its own difficulties, the group noted.

“While some areas are becoming more conducive to wheat growing, crop yields are suffering in other regions around the world traditionally known as bread baskets,” said wheat physiologist Dr. Matthew Reynolds, who leads HeDWIC at CIMMYT.

To boost new ideas in “climate-proofing” crops, HeDWIC also conducts virtual meetings that bring together all awarded research teams to take advantage of the collective global expertise in heat and drought resilience, sharing knowledge and further leveraging resources and capabilities.

The following projects were awarded grants in 2022:

Exploring the potential of chlorophyll fluorescence for the early detection of drought and heat stress in wheat (FluoSense4Wheat)

“The HeDWIC mini proposal allows us to explore the potential of chlorophyll fluorescence for the early detection of drought and heat stress in wheat,” said Onno Muller, Forschungszentrum Jülich, Institute of Bio- and Geosciences, Germany. “The controlled irrigation conditions for wheat grown in Obregon give us the opportunity to quantify photosynthesis by fluorescence while drought develops. Detecting a drought-specific fluorescence response and/or the interaction between active and passive fluorescence is relevant for breeding selecting purposes as well as large spatial scale detection of drought by monitoring the plant.”

Physiological basis of amelioration of heat stress through nitrogen management in wheat

“Heat stress during grain filling can restrict the availability of carbohydrates needed for grain development,” said Renu Pandey, Division of Plant Physiology, Indian Agricultural Research Institute. “India has been experiencing sudden spikes in both minimum and maximum temperatures by 3 to 5 degrees above normal from late-February onwards, which is an important time for wheat grain-filling and has resulted in declining wheat productivity. 

“Our team is examining the ability of pre-flowering nitrogen applications to support biomass accumulation and overcome the grain-filling source (carbohydrate) limitation during heat spikes,” Pandey continued. “If successful, the results could have broad-reaching benefits given that farmers are familiar with and well-skilled in using nitrogen applications regimes in crop management.”

Can reproductive development be protected from heat stress by the trehalose 6-phosphate pathway?

“The HeDWIC funding provides a unique opportunity to test how the regulatory sugar, trehalose 6-phosphate (T6P) can protect wheat yields against increasingly common chronic and acute heat stress events,” Matthew Paul, Rothamsted Research, United Kingdom. “We have already shown that T6P spray increases wheat yields significantly in field conditions under a range of rainfall in wet and dry years. 

“With increasing likelihood of heat stress events in the years ahead, in unique facilities at CIMMYT, we will test the potential of T6P to protect reproductive development from catastrophic yield loss due to chronic and acute heat.”

Investigating tolerance of heat resilient wheat germplasm to drought

“Over the last decade, we have developed heat tolerant wheat germplasm at the University of Sydney that maintains yield under terminal heat stress,” said William Salter, University of Sydney, Australia. “In our new HeDWIC project, this material will be tested under combined drought and heat stress under field conditions. This will provide plant breeders with highly valuable information on field tested germplasm for use in accelerated breeding programs targeting combined heat and drought tolerance. 

“The work is critical for future food security considering the inextricable link between temperature and plant water demand, and the increased frequency and intensity of heat and drought events under projected climate change.” 

Novel wheat architecture alleles to optimize biomass under drought

“Wheat Rht-1 dwarfing genes were an essential component that led to spectacular increases in grain yields during the Green Revolution,” said Steve Thomas, Rothamsted Research, United Kingdom. “Although Rht-1 and Rht-2 are still used widely in wheat breeding 50 years after they were introduced, they are suboptimal under drought conditions and are often associated with a yield penalty. 

“Using a more extensive range of Rht-1 dwarfing alleles that were developed at Rothamsted, we will introduce them into CIMMYT germplasm to optimize biomass and ultimately increase grain yields under drought stress.”