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Breeder traces wheat’s evolution from ancient grain

Candace Krebs
The Ag Journal
Esten Mason joined CSU’s department of soil and crop sciences last August, and officially moved into the role of chief wheat breeder at the beginning of the year. Mason described how modern wheat evolved from ancient grains and talked about the work being done to improve on it during a presentation at the recent UCCS Heritage Grain School Forum.

Consumers seeking uniqueness in their grains sometimes overlook how much modern wheat improvement efforts have contributed to both grain quality and environmental sustainability.

In one of his first public appearances as Colorado State University’s new chief wheat breeder, Esten Mason gave an overview of the evolution of modern cereal grains during a heritage grains forum held in conjunction with University of Colorado Colorado Springs annual Grain School.

Mason came to CSU after ten years at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville where he was part of a cooperative of southeastern land grant colleges working on soft red wheat varieties. Prior to that, the Texas hill country native did his doctorate in plant breeding at Texas A&M and post-doctoral work at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico.

He was drawn to wheat breeding as a career after working in a wheat breeding lab on campus as well as listening to lectures by Green Revolution founder Norman Borloug, a distinguished professor of international agriculture at the college in the 1980s.

Ancient grains have two primary purposes, Mason said in his talk and in a follow-up phone interview. They present a value added niche crop for producers. But they also provide a pool of genes for modern breeders to access desirable traits to bring into their breeding programs.

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The heritage grain movement can feel like a nostalgic step back in time, but it also presents fresh challenges in terms of production, processing and product development.

“Essentially you’re throwing out everything we’ve tried to improve on over the last hundred years,” Mason said.

A growing segment of consumers seek variety and uniqueness in their food products, and that’s been coupled to some degree over the last 20 years with fears that modern gluten has somehow become less healthful, more inflammatory or harder to digest than the gluten in ancient varieties.

Wheat products have changed considerably in how they are milled, baked and distributed, but Mason explained that the biggest changes to the grain’s genetic composition — including the genes for gluten — occurred long before modern wheat breeding began.

Wheat shares a common ancestor with rye, barley and einkorn, crops that were first domesticated more than 12,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent region.

Mason cited work done at Cornell, which shows ancient wheat ancestors, einkorn and emmer, elicit less gluten reactivity among those with celiac disease. A breeding project is underway there to select for lines that are more productive and easier to de-hull.

Spelt, durum and bread wheat, on the other hand, create a stronger gluten reaction because their genetic code is more complex. These grains naturally evolved through hybridization in the wild to contain more copies of the genes associated with protein production.

Still, Cornell’s work shows there’s virtually no difference between the gluten reactivity in the original Turkey Red, which pre-dates Borlaug’s Green Revolution, and modern varieties, such as Langin and Byrd, he added.

What has changed is that land grant colleges put decades of research into selecting wheat to make it higher yielding and easier to grow, while improving its functional qualities to suit end-users.

Among other things, breeders increased the zinc and iron content in the grain and decreased the need for production inputs, Mason said.

“Wheat is actually grown in a very natural way with minimal inputs compared to other crops like maize or soybeans,” he pointed out.

“I would say that 50 percent of sustainable agriculture is good varieties, and I think a lot of times that message gets lost,” he added.

Maintaining a diverse pool of ancient grains continues to play an important role in the development of improved wheat. Breeders often look to these ancestral lines to bring in new traits when unanticipated production challenges arise.

One example in Colorado is a long-term effort to combat the wheat stem sawfly, which migrated southeast out of Montana. The pest not only harms production, but it interferes with sustainable farming practices in arid environments.

“The wasp lays its egg in the stem, similar to what Hessian fly does, but this happens closer to flowering time, so as the larvae develops it will cut the stem of the wheat, and the wheat will just lay over,” Mason said.

To harvest the fallen grain, farmers must drop their wheat headers extremely low to the ground, which results in picking up more chaff and foreign material and leaving less plant residue behind. Without groundcover, the soil loses more moisture, captures less snow and builds organic matter more slowly.

“It’s a big problem, and something Kansas and Oklahoma will eventually have to address too,” Mason said.

It isn’t cost effective to treat the pest with insecticide, so breeding programs have turned to developing solid-stemmed varieties, which provide some resistance to the pest.

To get the solid stem trait, breeders introduced genes from a Portuguese landrace variety. Incorporating it initially brought a drawback in yield. That's because this wheat lineage diverts some of its energy away from filling grain to fill the stem, Mason explained.

“It set us back at least 10 years, and it’s going to take time to overcome that yield drag, but we are getting there,” he said.

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The result of these efforts is several new varieties including Fortify SF, which was released during wheat breeder emeritus Scott Haley’s 22-year tenure at the university. There are at least two other solid stem candidates currently in the pipeline that are set for release this summer.

Helping solve production challenges is a key aspect of the breeding program, but it’s also important to look into the future, understand emerging consumer trends and provide education to consumers on the science behind modern wheat production, Mason said.

Varieties like Snowmass 2.0 prove it is possible to combine quality traits desirable to end-users with enhanced productivity traits.

Snowmass is a hard white wheat variety, currently grown under contract for Ardent Mills, which fetches a price premium.

“It’s an incredible variety, and farmers are not taking a yield penalty for growing it,” Mason said.

That achievement is something he wants to build on, with other innovative consumer-focused traits already in development.

The value of diversity was one of the themes of the UCCS heritage grain forum.

“When you look at the bread supply chain, there’s a whole spectrum there, in terms of how it’s produced and the different price points,” Mason said. “I think there are opportunities for developing unique products. And I think developing unique products for wheat will be important to keeping it competitive in the future.”