Combining the strengths of UK and Kazakh wheat research

UK and Kazakh wheat researchers have come together to compare notes and develop a unique set of combined resources with the long term goal of improving wheat production in both countries. Researchers Dr Simon Griffiths, project leader in crop genetics at the John Innes Centre (JIC), reports on some of their findings.

At first glance, the wheat growing environments of the UK and Kazakhstan could not be more different. UK wheat grows for almost a whole year, sown in September and harvested in August with the crop fully exploiting the estimated 600mm of annual rainfall leading to very high yield potential on which farmers capitalise using intensive agricultural practice to achieve approximately eight tonne per hectare yields.

These are amongst the highest in the world. In contrast the life cycle of Kazakh wheat needs to be squeezed into a three month period avoiding lethal winter temperatures and the extremes of continental heat during grain filling and it is grown over an acreage ten times the size of the UK, defying intensive agronomy efforts and resulting in yields around one tonne per hectare.

Despite the high grain quality, these are amongst the lowest yields in the world. However, there are some interesting similarities between the environments. Both wheat growing areas on the same latitude, so the day length changes which are very important signals for crop development are the same in both locations. In addition, the challenges of fighting disease and maintaining quality are universally important.

A recent highlight of this relationship was a visit of UK wheat researchers to Astana and Almaty in May of 2018, funded by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and led by Professor Peter Shewry of Rothamsted for the UK and Professor Yerlan Turuspekov of the Institute of Plant Biology and Biotechnology (IPBB) coordinating in Kazakhstan.

The visit gave the opportunity for in depth discussions at A.I. Baraev Kazakh Research Institute of Grain Farming (near Astana) and the Kazakh Research Institute of Agriculture and Plant Growing and Institute of Plant Biology and Biotechnology, which are both in the Almaty region. Dr Alexei Morgounov of CIMMYT played a key role in bringing these groups together and also attracted researchers from neighbouring countries: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

An exciting outcome of the meeting was an agreement to form a new collection of wheat varieties grown in Central Asia so that their genetic fingerprint can be determined at the University of Bristol, shedding new light on the function of important genes and showing how varieties developed for these regions are different to wheat bred for the UK and the rest of the world. This new germplasm panel will be named after the Central Asian Wheat Breeding Initiative (CAWBIn). The potential for this type of initiative is exemplified by the work of a PhD student, Kanat Yermekbayev funded by a “Bolashak” International Presidential Scholarship under the supervision of Simon Griffiths (John Innes Centre, UK) and Prof Y Turuspekov.

He has crossed the spring wheat varieties Paragon (UK) and Pamyati Azieva (Russian variety, but well adapted to Kazakhstan) showing that the latter carries previously unknown versions of two genes which dramatically increase the height of wheat. This discovery was more striking in the light of the fact that although work funded by the BBSRC and the Defra Wheat Genetic Improvement Network (WGIN) has included hundreds of such crosses with Paragon using wheat from around the world and from historical collections, height increases of such magnitude have never been seen before. The researchers speculate that these effects contribute the rapid early growth and vigour that are essential for Kazakh wheat to establish in the short and stressful growing season which limits the ultimate height of the crop. In the UK this type of wheat would grow too tall and lodge.

Comparing the genetics of wheat grown in these contrasting environments wheat breeders in Western Europe and Central Asia should provide new insights into the material grown in both countries, with mutual benefits also from exchanging material and sharing the high cost of modern research. In this way we will be better placed to adapt to climate change and volatility faced in both environments.