MANHATTAN, KANSAS, U.S. — The essential role of wheat in feeding so many people around the world was at the core of a decision by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund a wheat genetics funding program with Kansas State University (KSU) as the lead institution. 

The grant could be characterized as “extraordinary,” said Bikram S. Gill, who will lead the program. Gill, in an interview with World Grain’s sister publication Milling & Baking News, commented on the NSF Industry & University Cooperative Research Program he will lead. 

The initial NSF grant was for $102,500. Collaborators in the project include the Kansas Wheat Commission, the Kansas Wheat Alliance and a number of companies — Bayer CropScience LP; Syngenta A.G.; Limagrain; Dow Agrosciences LLC; General Mills, Inc.; and the Heartland Plant Innovation Center. 

The decision to pursue the NSF grant was fueled by a squeeze on state funding for wheat genetic research, Gill said. 

“This is a five-year program, and we had to jump through a lot of hoops to get the grant,” Gill said. “The grant will be reviewed every year. 

“In our proposal, we stressed two ideas. First is coming up with wheat resistant to heat and drought, reflecting concerns about the impact of global warming and the essential role of wheat in feeding so many people around the world. Additionally, we will be training graduate students in how to do advanced research on wheat.” 

Bioengineered wheat is not going to factor into the group’s work, he said. 

Gill is the founding director of the Wheat Genetics Resource Center (WGRC), which collects, conserves and uses germplasm for crop improvement and to “broaden the genetic base.” Since the mid-80s, the center also has worked to “create and promote the free exchange of materials, technology, and new knowledge in genetics and biotechnology among the world's public and private organizations,” according to KSU. The center sponsors graduate and postgraduate students as well as visiting scientists. 

“We develop germplasm, examining traits such as resistance to rust and other diseases,” Gill said. 

The NSF said the program will build upon work done at the WGRC. Colorado State University will be a partner in the project. 

In their announcement, the NSF spoke of the broad impact of the group’s work. 

“Wheat is a critical source of protein, and world health depends on production, which has been impacted by climate change,” the NSF said. “A doctoral program in seed and wheat breeding will he an element of the program and is clearly needed. Over the last few years, the researchers involved in the center have had significant impact through providing industrially relevant education to a large number of students, including many from underrepresented groups.” 

The five years of approved NSF funding (subject to annual review) could be characterized as a “down payment” against work that will require much longer to complete, K.S.U. said. 

“It usually takes 12 to 14 years to identify and validate genetic traits, and integrate these traits into a market-ready wheat variety,” KSU said. “WGRC’s goal will be to cut this time in half. WGRC will develop and apply innovative methods to incorporate novel, high-value traits in wheat breeding programs for sustainable and profitable crop production. WGRC houses one of the world’s premier collections of wheat germplasm and genetic tools, routinely capitalized in applied breeding programs worldwide. With its partners, WGRC will be a center of innovation for rapid improvement of a global wheat crop, solving problems that limit wheat production, and improving the functionality of wheat as the world’s mostly widely consumed food or food ingredient.” 

According to KSU, much of the work of the cooperative research program will take place in the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center which opened in December 2012. The facility principally was the idea of and funded by Kansas wheat growers. The 35,000 square-foot structure, which includes 15,000 square feet of advanced wheat breeding laboratories, a 10,000 square-foot greenhouse complex and 10,000 square feet of office space. It is located on the KSU Department of Grain Science and Industry mini-campus.