The U.S. Department of Agriculture is granting a Kansas State University wheat geneticist nearly $1 million for two projects to improve the genetic diversity of wheat.


The funds will go toward studying and cultivating a genetic species of wheat that can withstand drought, heat and viruses. Jesse Poland, Ph.D., a wheat geneticist and professor of plant pathology and director of the Wheat Genetics Resource Center Industry-University Cooperative Research Center at K-State, is a part of two grants that focus on bringing wild native plants together with wheat to create a better seed for farmers in Kansas.


"The wheat genome is quite adaptable," said Poland, who grew up on a farm in north-central Kansas. "We hope to find stress tolerance and disease resistance in these wild relatives."


The USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, through its Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, provided the funds for two projects. The first project is a collaboration between K-State, 2Blades Foundation, the University of Minnesota and the John Innes Center. This team will use the Wheat Genetics Resource Center's collection of wild Emmer and identify genes providing resistance to stripe, leaf and stem rust — three diseases that cause nearly $3 billion in damage to global wheat crops annually.


K-State plant pathology researchers Bernd Friebe and Dal-Hoe Koo and Poland, all of the Wheat Genetics Resource Center, together with Assaf Distelfeld of the University of Haifa in Israel, are working to unlock genetic diversity in another distant wild relative of wheat for the second project. Their work hopes to make better genetic markers for wheat breeders to use.


Through these projects, Poland will examine wheat's family tree for solutions of untapped genetic diversity. By diving into vast reservoirs of ancient grasses, Poland hopes to increase the stamina of the grain and make it adaptable to climate changes. Many of the wild relative samples come from the 1940s through the 1960s and were gathered near the Caspian Sea in Iran and Turkey. Poland said many of these genetic variations are not found in the more than 1,000 varieties of wheat grown in Kansas.


"These wheat wild relatives are a huge storehouse of diversity," Poland said. "Our goal is to transfer these good traits to wheat."


In addition to creating stronger and more resilient breads with regards to drought, heat, viruses and diseases, Poland hopes to unlock important traits in genetic diversity. He is especially interested in finding traits that help with curl mite.


Poland estimates that each project might take from six years to more than one decade. The wheat specimens will then go to breeders and then filter down to farmers to plant.


"We get to use genetic variation that is not present in Kansas," Poland said. "We hope to develop two new wheat varieties that will provide genetic resources to breeders and see this novel genetic diversity transferred to breeding companies and delivered to farmers."