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‘Holy grail’ wheat gene could make heat resistant crops

How humanity is to continue growing wheat in centuries to come has long been agriculture’s million-dollar question, but UK scientists have finally developed a crop gene reportedly resistant to a warming world. 

Remember Interstellar, where a global wheat blight forced Mathew McConachie to scour neighbouring galaxies in search of habitable planets? If only he’d gone to Norwich first. 

In the small British city, researchers have reportedly found a way of making wheat crops more resistant to heatwaves and drought, meaning future crops may be fit to survive a warming world. 

Why is this big news, I hear you ask? Try this on for size. Wheat is largely regarded as the prime staple of food production, turning homo sapiens from hunter/gatherers into rulers of our lands thousands of years ago. 

Today, it continues to make up some 20% of all calories consumed daily and the value of the global market is expected to be around $305bn by 2028.

Suffice to say, a world without wheat, or with significantly diminished supply, would be rife with famine. Yet, knowing this, human-induced climate change still threatens the prosperity of our harvests considerably more each year. 

Worrying as the situation is, crisis isn’t quite an inevitability here, however. Recent leaps into agricultural gene-editing suggest that we may be able to make future crops of wheat more stubborn to the elements – specifically heatwaves and drought. 

After several decades of work, researchers at the John Innes Centre (JIC) have stumbled on what they’re calling the ‘holy grail’ of wheat alterations.

Notorious for being the most difficult of all major crops to study, due to the complexity and scale of its genome, this is potentially the biggest breakthrough in the field to date (no pun intended). 

‘Human beings have a single genome that contains our DNA instructions, but pasta wheat has two different ancestral genomes while bread wheat has three,’ explained Professor Graham Moore of the JIC.

The key to making this doctored wheat more robust was found in wild relatives of the crop. Characteristics such as being disease resistant, having high salt tolerance, and natural protection against heat have allured scientists for years, but only now are these attributes being assimilated. 

A gene labelled by the institution as Zip4.5B finally allows wheat chromosomes to pair correctly, meaning theoretically we can make enhanced crops unaffected by a warming climate. 

How the science plays out in practice, researchers are extremely keen to find out. Trials are being prepped for later this month to see how the samples withstand the heat of Iberia, Spain, and whether the expected yield is to be unaffected. 

‘Wheat has played a remarkable role in human history. Hopefully, this work will help it to maintain its importance as a foodstuff for the future,’ Moore declares. Let’s hope this proves fruitful.