UMD Assistant Professor Receives USDA Grant to Develop New Genetic Techniques to Incorporate Natural Variations in Wheat Breeding

Techniques will enhance breeding performance to improve wheat quality and yield

Wheat Field in Kent County, Maryland

Image Credit: Edwin Remsberg

August 6, 2020 Samantha Watters

Enhancing the production of global staples like wheat to feed a rapidly growing global population requires the fast integration of new genes and traits into usable varieties for growers. To meet this need and incorporate natural genetic variation that improves wheat quality and yield, Vijay Tiwari, assistant professor in Plant Science & Landscape Architecture at the University of Maryland (UMD), is directing a new grant from the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) that applies his unique expertise in Radiation Hybrid (RH) mapping. Used to validate the whole wheat genome sequence, RH mapping can improve the targeting and transfer of valuable genetic traits without incorporating any negative traits that may set back the breeding process. Collaborating with Kansas State University, Tiwari will guide the development of new genetic techniques using RH mapping to incorporate desirable traits into the wheat genome and enhance wheat breeding. 

“I am very excited about this grant as it provides me with the tools and resources to perform active research on a very important topic that affects global food security,” says Tiwari. “We previously led the RH mapping work to assist in sequencing the whole wheat reference genome through the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC). Now through this project, we will be combining RH mapping, unique germplasm [or living tissue from which new plants can be grown], and advances in genomics to develop a pipeline for wheat improvement.”

To meet future demands of a projected world population of 9.6 billion by 2050, wheat production will need to increase by 60 percent according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. To preserve biodiversity, water, and nutrient resources, this increase has to be predominantly achieved through crop and trait improvement on currently cultivated land using sustainable agricultural approaches.

“To keep pace with the growing demands in wheat production,” says Tiwari, “we need quick integration of new genes and traits in wheat breeding. However, gene transfer from wheat’s wild and related genetic material brings undesirable traits that negatively influence end-use quality and grain yield. Our project team is focused on developing a method without genetic modification to speed up the natural breeding process and transfer important genes from wheat's genetic ancestors to bread wheat varieties while reducing linkage drag.”

Linkage drag is the process by which undesirable traits are ‘dragged’ over with desirable traits during the genetic recombination process. According to Tiwari, linkage drag is just one of several “big recombination barriers to utilize wheat’s distant gene pool for bread wheat improvement.” Using his expertise in RH mapping to validate and create maps of entire chromosomes, Tiwari and his collaborators plan to use genetic markers to develop a method to track genetic variation that can stand in the way of desirable breeding and channel desirable traits for incorporation into new bread wheat varieties.

“This fits very well with the work I do under our Maryland Small Grain Breeding and Genetics program at UMD,” says Tiwari. “UMD’s program is focused on developing elite cultivars with novel genes and traits to increase overall crop productivity. The long-term goal of this new project is to reduce the bottlenecks for gene transfer from wheat’s distant gene pool that will serve as an important step to bring more genes and traits to fight diseases and abiotic stresses like heat. Germplasm developed in this project will be available to breeders across the country. The success of this project will aid our overall goal to ensure global food security.”

This work is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA), Award #2020-67013-31460