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K-State Today

February 10, 2022

Wheat Genetics Resource Center founder earns honor

Submitted by Susan Schiff

Dr. Gill in Wheat Genetics Resource Center

Bikram Gill, a world-renowned expert on wheat genetics and genomics and founding director of the Wheat Genetics Resource Center in the plant pathology department at Kansas State University, has been named the inaugural holder of the endowed Bikram S. Gill Chair in Wheat Genetics established in his honor.

For nearly 50 years, Gill's research has focused on conserving wild and ancient grains and utilizing them in the breeding of modern wheat varieties, particularly bread wheats, that are more nutritious and disease-resistant and high-yielding.

Gill said his greatest contribution is founding the Wheat Genetics Resource Center with collaborating scientists at K-State and the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The center provides germplasm to researchers and breeders around the world and develops and shares knowledge to support sustainable and profitable wheat production. The center has operations in the Throckmorton Plant Science Center and in the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center.

In 2013, Gill served as the first lead investigator of the National Science Foundation-funded Industry/University Cooperative Research Center on wheat. This is the first I/UCRC research center for any crop plant established by the National Science Foundation. In 2018, K-State recognized the Wheat Genetics Resource Center with an Excellence in Innovation and Economic Engagement Award.

The center's gene bank, which maintains more than 4,000 wild wheat species strains and 4,000 genetics stocks, and its laboratory offers opportunities for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to work with industry partners and academic scientists to develop new genetic research that quickly improves crop yield, quality and food security.

Wheat is the staple food of more than one-third of the global population and it accounts for almost 20% of the total calories and protein consumed, which is more than any other single food source. According to Gill, increasing the production of wheat will be essential, but the majority of this increase will need to be achieved through crop and trait improvement rather than committing new land to the cultivation of wheat.

"Wild wheat species have properties that domesticated species do not," Gill said. "They are more resistant to disease and offer different health benefits. The wild species are essential to our ability to continue to create new breeds that are stronger and more nutritious."

Gill came to the plant pathology department in 1979 as an assistant professor and rose in rank to university distinguished professor in 1997. He founded the Wheat Genetics Resource Center at K-State in 1984. In 2018, he was named university distinguished professor emeritus. With his emeritus standing and as the inaugural Bikram S. Gill chair, Gill hopes to pursue science outreach and scholarly research, including reviewing articles and books on crop genetic resources.

Gill, who grew up in the rural Punjab province of India, is also eager to grow the Ram Singh and Basant Kaur Gill Memorial Award he established in honor of his parents to attract and fund undergraduate students studying agriculture.

Under Gill's leadership and growing scientific reputation, the impact and promise of the Wheat Genetics Resource Center enabled it to receive recurring federal funding to support its mission and work. Federal support for the center more than doubled under former K-State Dean of Agriculture Fred Cholick, himself a wheat breeder.

Cholick said, "Bikram Gill's unique approach to establishing a well-curated genetic bank for mining important traits from wheat's wild relatives and moving them into modern wheat varieties was truly visionary. I am so pleased to learn that he is being recognized as the inaugural Bikram S. Gill Chair in Wheat Genetics."

"It is so very fitting that Dr. Gill be recognized in this way," said Ernie Minton, dean of the College of Agriculture. "The potential for beneficial trait discovery was made possible by one of Bikram's greatest contributions to the public good, namely, the establishment of the Wheat Genetics Resource Center. I am confident the WGRC will contribute in a critical way to feeding a growing world population for decades to come."

"I am delighted that Dr. Gill is being honored as the inaugural Gill Chair," said Megan Kennelly, head of the plant pathology department. "His contributions to wheat genetics have been outstanding and have benefited our department, K-State and wheat research all over the world." 

The chair was established from licensing revenues received by the Kansas State University Research Foundation — now Kansas State University Innovation Partners — and transferred to the KSU Foundation.