A group of public wheat breeders and scientists from the Southeast have been awarded $5 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The funds are earmarked to make using DNA technology a routine part of wheat breeding nationwide.

The project involves wheat scientists from Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia. “This grant gives us the opportunity to map a lot of very important wheat traits that aren’t available at the present time,” says Jerry Johnson, head of the small grains breeding program in the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “The DNA markers will allow us to develop wheat cultivars much more efficiently and quickly.”

Using traditional breeding methods, it can be up to 10 years from the time a researcher begins crossbreeding plants before a farmer can plant the new variety.

“With a lot of traits, we have to wait until we've grown out several plant generations to truly verify that we have the trait in the new cross,” Johnson says. “Having DNA markers will allow us to verify these traits earlier and will greatly improve breeding efficiency,” he said. “It will also allow us to combine pest resistance more effectively to improve new varieties.”

For the project, the research team will focus on identifying wheat genes that resist diseases like powdery mildew, leaf rust, stripe rust and fusarium head blight. All of these diseases affect wheat in the Southeast. Powdery mildew alone causes annual crop losses of 10 percent to 30 percent in this region.

As a result of the grant project, U.S. wheat breeders will have access to more than 80,000 DNA analyses per year. Breeders can then use these markers to precisely select genes that improve quality or provide resistance to pathogens and pests.

USDA genotyping labs will provide the molecular analysis required to deploy the targeted genes into breeding lines. The genetic information will then be stored in national databases. Seed stocks will be deposited in the USDA Small Grain Collection.

This will provide long-term, public access to the genetic information for wheat breeders and researchers worldwide, Johnson says.

The wheat research team will also work to identify genes known to produce wheat with superior milling and baking qualities.

“The continuous improvement of U.S. varieties is essential to produce better bread, cookies and pasta products,” Johnson says. “New releases also help U.S.-grown wheat compete internationally.”

UGA wheat breeders have released more than 35 new varieties geared to help growers fight pests and produce high-quality, high-yield wheat. Johnson’s breeding program at UGA released two new varieties last year and will release two more this year.

Besides the DNA technology, the project also includes an outreach effort. Information about the new DNA marker technology will be shared with growers and the public.

An educational program will be geared to attract students to agriculture.

“We will train the students in molecular and traditional breeding technologies,”

Johnson says. “Hopefully, their interest will be sparked and they'll become our nation's future wheat breeders.”