Dr Melissa Garcia
Original Published Date: 
Monday, November 16, 2020

Researchers at the ARC Industrial Transformation Research Hub for genetic diversity and molecular breeding for wheat in a hot and dry climate (the Wheat Hub) have been showcasing five years of productive work alongside their industry partners, and national and international collaborators, working to develop solutions for enhancing yield and productivity in the harshest Australian environments. 

Led by Hub Director, Associate Professor Stuart Roy, the Wheat Hub's research programs have given Australian breeders greater access to genetic diversity for heat and drought tolerance, enhancing grain nutrition, using novel cultivars, and have been training breeders with the use of new tools. 

'We understand the genetic basis of that difference in tolerance better now, which means that we can use genetic markers to find varieties that carry the tolerance traits,' says Dr Penny Tricker, whose research group investigated the tolerance of wheat to drought and heat stress.

The wheat genome is five times the size of the human genome, making data analysis challenging, so researchers at the Wheat Hub built a new tool, which they called DAWN, to visualise the genetic diversity of the plant from the smallest to the largest scale.

'This allowed us to see what high performance wheat cultivars have in common, and what effect single mutations in the wheat genome might have,' says Dr Ute Baumann, leader of the Genomics for Breeding program at the Hub. 'DAWN allows us to save time by showing us the crosses in breeding program that ultimately might not work.'

Dr Melissa Garcia's research program was focussed on bringing more genetic diversity to Australian wheat. 'Genetic diversity is quite important for plants to cope with environmental stresses, and in Australia the main environmental stresses are heat and drought,' says Dr Garcia, whose team produced about 2,500 plants that were grown across in Australia in different environments to look at different traits, in particular grain yield.

'Because we combined these exotic wheat varieties with Australian varieties, they can now be used here, in commercial breeding programs, to develop lines that might be more adapted to heat and drought stress,' says Dr Garcia.  

Dr Mamoru Okamoto's research group at the Wheat Hub was focussed on increasing wheat grain protein content, without negatively affecting yield.

'Wheat grain protein content is important because it determines wheat classification and the end product's qualities,' says Dr Okamoto. 'Unfortunately we often see grain yield and protein content are negatively correlated, which means that increasing one quality decreases the other.'

The research team worked to break down this negative relationship between protein content and yield, discovering where the genetic bottlenecks might be located in the genome. They also developed genetic markers to increase the grain protein content which can be used in commercial breeding programs. 

Researchers at the Wheat Hub worked closely with wheat breeders, showing how new technology can speed up and improve decision making processes in wheat breeding programs. Dr Ramesh Raja Segaran says that the use of drones allows breeders to take field measurements of breeding plots across larger areas and with much reduced effort.

'In the past with these types of measurements, we were taking a couple per plot, whereas with drones we can now take hundreds to thousands of measurements per plot, which gives you more of a detailed understanding of what might be happening in them. It also reduces the amount of data you take back to the lab with you, you actually walk back in with useable information.' 

'All of the partners have now got their own technology in the air, taking measurements regularly, and they're doing it with much more confidence having discussed a lot of their ideas with us,' says Dr Raja Segaran.

In just five years, the new tools technologies and lines that the research teams at the Wheat Hub have developed will help wheat breeders to improve varieties, and get them out to farmers faster. 

You can read more about the Wheat Hub’s research successes and achievements on the showcase website.

Photo credit: 

Dr Melissa Garcia, Translation Manager and Program Leader for Germplasm Development. Credit: Wheat Hub.