Understanding such traits in modern wheat as drought tolerance, heat tolerance, and resistance to various diseases and pests could result from research on a wild ancestor of wheat. This, according to a new study published in the July 7 issue of Science magazine.

An international team of researchers deciphered all 10 billion letters in the genetic code of wild emmer, an ancestor to wheat. Thanks to the discovery, scientists may compare the DNA of the ancestor wheat to modern wheat varieties.

“From a biological and historical viewpoint, we have created a time tunnel that we can use to examine wheat from before the origins of agriculture,” says Assaf Distefeld, Ph.D., a professor at Tel Aviv University in Israel and the project’s leader.

Researchers at Kansas State University in Manhattan were part of the study. Funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture supported the work at the university. The findings will allow breeders to more precisely identify gene segments that will help improve Kansas wheat varieties.

“The small segments of the wild emmer chromosomes are being transferred to bread wheat, and these segments can carry some useful genes in there, and they can be used in (K.S.U.) breeding programs,” says Eduard Akhunov, Ph.D., a professor of plant pathology and wheat genomics at K.S.U. “It is a valuable source for improving end-use quality of wheat, especially grain composition and the mineral content, and protein content. There are a number of genes that are known to improve this trait, and they are coming from wild emmer.”

Allan K. Fritz, Ph.D., a wheat breeder at K.S.U., is conducting field trials with wild emmer at the Ashland Bottoms research farm near Manhattan. He says it will take at least 15 years before the traits from the wild wheats will be available in commercial varieties.

“I’m really excited about this,” he says. “We can do some really good things. I think there’s the opportunity to make much better wheat varieties, increase value in wheat for our producers, and to have a healthier product for consumers.”

Dr. Fritz’s research team has done preliminary screening of wild emmer and found resistance to wheat streak mosaic virus. Reports indicate the wild emmer also contains genes for resistance to fusarium head blight and strip rust.

“The wild emmers can contain in excess of 30% protein,” he says. “So there’s high protein. We also know from the research of others that you can find some wild emmer that has twice the antioxidant capacity of domesticated durum.

“We know that these wheats accumulate such things as iron and zinc at a higher level. So we can start to talk about nutritionally superior wheat varieties that can come out of this material. We think there’s real value there for consumers as well as helping to ensure production in an increasingly variable environment.”