Breeding Wheat for Heat: Q&A with Kulvinder Gill, Director of the Feed the Future Climate Resilient Wheat Innovation Lab
This interview is the second in a series with the Feed the Future Innovation Labs for climate, weather and resilient agriculture month this May on Agrilinks. See the first in the series here.
By using a combination of high quality basic and applied research in genomics, molecular biology and physiology; conventional and fast breeding approaches as well as improved breeding tools; and by leveraging resources from other organisms, the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Climate Resilient Wheat is developing new wheat varieties that can withstand heat stress.
Agrilinks: What are some of the key research questions the Climate Resilient Wheat Innovation Lab seeks to address? Why is heat such a focus for the lab?
Gill: What is the genetic, molecular and physiological basis of heat stress? What is the effect of heat on yield and grain quality? How does the changing climate affect wheat yield and grain quality? These are some of the issues we are examining at our lab, all with the goal of improving food security among smallholders through higher quality, better growing and climate resistant wheat.
The issues with heat in wheat depend on the region. In some portions of the Indian sub-continent, heat stress is most significant at the flowering stage. Every degree of heat costs about five percent yield loss. Grain weight also goes down, and shriveling occurs with heat stress.
Agrilinks: Where does the lab operate?
Gill: To date, work has primarily taken place in India, where the majority of funding has been secured, but we will begin field testing in Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Wheat is already an important crop in India and is becoming increasingly important in Bangladesh as wheat consumption increases. Historically, these places are a little too warm to grow wheat, but if we can get a couple of degrees’ advantage, we see the crop coming up quite a bit in these countries. Historically we’ve seen countries switch from rice to wheat as incomes rise, as wheat lends itself to more portable, easier-to-eat products such as breads and other baked products.
Agrilinks: What are some of the key successes of the lab?
Gill: Using a combination of basic and applied research in genomics, molecular biology and physiology as well as conventional and fast breeding approaches, the lab is developing new wheat varieties that can withstand heat stress.
When we started, 28 degrees Celsius was considered ideal; wheat would not do well in temperatures above that. We decided to go to warmer places, like Libya and Egypt, in search of heat tolerant wheat lines, and after two years of perseverance, we were successful.
We have now identified lines of wheat that do fairly well at 40 degrees, wheat varieties we are sharing with major breeding programs around the world. The lab will release at least two varieties, which will grow all the way from Nepal to Ethiopia, as the germplasm is adapted to the entire region.
Previously, some of this genetic material had been stored in gene banks but not evaluated. There are hundreds of thousands of lines, and we don’t know which are heat tolerant as it is not possible to test them all. Our common sense approach was to do five screening protocols combined with field evaluations. The first screen covered 5,000 lines, which we pared down to 40 to 50, which we then put into field trials.
I’m also really proud of all we have done to train the next generation of scientists, a total of 300 scientists from the regions where we operate.
Agrilinks: What were some of the challenges you faced in accomplishing the lab’s goals?
Gill: The project startup secured five million dollars in matching grant funds in India, but it took four years for the money to start flowing. Partners had to work without funding, and we thought we might lose the project as a result.
Our second huge surprise was learning that we could not get germplasm out of India, which could have ruined the project. By building good relationships with authorities, we managed to get this regulation changed, but another inconsequential rule resulted in approvals taking two years to secure.
The short answer is that we learned how important it is to understand rules and policies but also that personal contacts can make things happen. Different rules were interpreted totally differently, and relationship building with authorities and administrators was key for navigating that. You’ve got to learn how the system works in the target country. You can’t just work with the scientists in-country, you have to involve administrators at all levels.
Agrilinks: What’s next for the project?
Gill: We have a two-year extension as a result of our late start. Before the end of the project, we will have developed and deployed varieties on farmers’ fields that yield equal or better than existing varieties under heat conditions. We have a special breeding method that can produce varieties in two to three years.
Our objective is not only to benefit our target countries but other regions as well, including the US. We’re working with the Washington Grain Commission to apply some of our findings to Kansas wheat, for example.
Our project started from scratch, so it took longer compared to projects that are continuations. We feel that we’re ready to take this to the rest of the world, because heat is becoming an increasingly important issue for crops throughout the world.