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Wheat gene bank promotes world food security

By Mark Berry



There is a bank at Kansas State University with an unusual currency.

It is given away to people all over the world, and it could be crucial in making sure the world's food supply keeps up with a growing population.

This bank is called the Wheat Genetics Resource Center. Inside aluminum packets in aluminum boxes in a refrigerated room are the seeds from 11,000 strains of wheat. The seeds are a living collection of wheat from at least 15 different countries, so that even if their habitat dies out, these strains will live on at K-State.

The wheats in the bank are used in the creation of new types of wheat. If farmers need wheat that can stay alive in hot weather, or high humidity, or is resistant to disease, K-State scientists can custom-build them.

The type of wheat that people use to make food is only 8,000 years old, which makes it a baby in developmental terms. It is susceptible to disease and insects, which have been around for 15 million years. Worldwide, farmers lose 25 percent of their wheat crops to diseases and insects, said Bikram Gill, distinguished professor of plant pathology and director of the center.

"Of course, you can spray chemicals, but that's not cost-effective and it's also harmful for the environment. The best way to protect wheat is to have built-in resistance, and the source of built-in resistance is the genetic variation in the wild wheats," Gill said.

Wild wheat looks like an ordinary blade of wild grass and isn't much use for making bread and pasta. But it has coevolved with diseases and insects over the eons.

Different kinds of wild wheat are found all over the world. Some strains have adapted to resist certain diseases or insects. Some survive in extreme heat, and others in humid climates. The genes from those wild wheat strains are hybridized with food-producing wheat to make stronger plants.

"That's the key, the biodiversity. It is our bread and butter. If we lose that biodiversity, we won't be able to live. That's the source of genes for crop improvement. We are preserving this biodiversity in the gene bank," Gill said.

The process is different from controversial genetically modified organisms, Gill said, in which non-wheat DNA is injected into wheat. At the Wheat Genetics Resource Center, scientists find wild wheat with the right strengths, and transfer that trait into another wheat plant by sexual hybridization.

Since 1985, the researchers at K-State have made 42 new lines of wheat germ plasms. It's not an easy or quick task. The wheat genome is three times larger than that of humans. A typical wild wheat plant has 30,000 genes. They only want a few of them, so the K-State researchers work at the level of DNA, finding those useful genes and breeding them in another wheat plant.

The center makes its wheat seeds available to people all over the world. The world population is expected to rise from 6 billion to 10 billion by the year 2050, Gill said.

"There is no room for extra new land to open up. We have to do it on the same land, and we are actually running out of water. We have this huge challenge of the food security of the world," Gill said. "That's our main objective, to increase the yield of wheat so that there is enough food in the world."

The center's scientists also work with researchers in other countries on developing wheat that is resistant to foreign diseases like karnal bunt. However, karnal bunt is a pathogen under quarantine and the federal government allows almost no laboratories in the United States to work on it.

The university is hoping to build a $40 million research laboratory that would let scientists safely study diseases like karnal bunt.

"When you have a new disease, you know it will come here sooner or later, so you might as well start working on it. You don't want to wait until it hits you," Gill said.

Spring 2002