A recipe for success: Technology, collaboration and legacy in AAFC wheat breeding

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Media Relations
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

People have been making bread for thousands of years — milling wheat into flour, kneading together ingredients and baking dough. Naan, focaccia, sourdough and the plain old loaf of white bread are just some of the delicious shapes, textures and sizes that bread can take. And just like bread, the wheat at it's foundation has a long history and takes a variety of forms.

In Canada, wheat history can be traced back to 1842 when David Fife planted the seed Red Fife wheat (named after him) on his farm in Ontario. Red Fife was well adapted to the harsh Canadian climate and by the 1860s was grown across the country. Red Fife was the start of the Canadian Heritage Bread Wheat Panel, a wheat lineage "bread" by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) scientists over the past 175 years. From the Dominion Experimental Farms of the late 1800s and early 1900s to the Research and Development Centres of today, the goal of AAFC wheat breeding remains the same: to identify the most profitable varieties of wheat for Canadian farmers, whether it be for bread, confectionary items or pasta.

Wheat breeding in practice, however, has changed quite a bit in the past century. And not just because scientists no longer chew their seed samples to pick out desired gluten traits! The wheat breeding process takes place at the genetic level now and breeders rely on predictive modelling and other efficiencies to speed up the process. Drs. Raju Soolanayakanahally and Santosh Kumar are examples of how collaboration, technology and legacy creates the perfect recipe for wheat breeding in the 21st century.

Chronicling the past

Dr. Soolanayakanahally is a research scientist at the Saskatoon Research and Development Centre who studies crop physiology, or how plants grow and function in a given environment. Over the past three years, Dr. Soolanayakanahally and his team have been honouring the legacy of wheat breeding by using historical varieties to study the climate change challenges that threaten wheat today. His research focuses on the ability of wheat to use water efficiently and adapt to rising temperatures and frequent droughts to ensure that wheat remains an important crop for Canadian producers.

To do this, Dr. Soolanayakanahally's team collected resources from different breeding programs and planted a selection of 30 historical wheat varieties across the prairie region in different soil types to assess how their genetic traits react to various conditions This was an opportunity to examine wheat strains from different eras, row by row, and determine which varieties demonstrate climate resilience traits at the micro-level. The team measured stomatal size, density and pore length to assess stomatal traits that could enhance water use efficiency.

Today's technology has made it easier to take measurements and gather data to determine the relative growth stages of different wheat varieties. The team used a drone, which captures thermal imagery and reads the vital signs of the plant using a variety of sensors to gather and interpret the data.

The end product

Dr. Soolanayakanahally collaborates with prairie wheat breeders across AAFC, including Dr. Santosh Kumar from the Brandon Research and Development Centre. As a wheat breeder, Dr. Kumar always has the end product in mind and is focused on developing the best wheat product for farmers and their bottom line. Dr. Kumar's research currently focuses on improving disease-resistance in wheat (particularly Fusarium Head Blight, a serious fungal disease), improving yield in early maturing wheat and increasing heat tolerance. Historical wheat varieties are an important resource for Dr. Kumar because they are trusted by farmers (having already proven their worth) — a small edit could renew an older wheat line and make it valuable in the changing conditions of today. For example, Dr. Kumar, with other Canadian wheat breeders, recently used a line developed decades ago to find factors that improved dormancy (plant hibernation) and prevented wheat plants from germinating before harvest. So when Dr. Soolanayakanahally reached out with his historic wheat project, Dr. Kumar was keen to collaborate.

Dr. Kumar and the prairie wheat breeding group assisted Dr. Soolanayakanahally with identifying the most popular varieties for his study and what information would be most valuable to the wheat breeding program. The immense data collected from Dr. Soolanayakanahally's project will support future wheat lines that are climate resilient and water efficient. The wheat history study will allow wheat breeders like Dr. Kumar to re-mine rare genetic factors, which have become less frequent in current genetic research because of very targeted breeding efforts over the last century. The information gleaned from this study will also be available to other researchers for future study.

"Over the past century, AAFC wheat breeders have adapted wheat varieties to the environments and disease challenges of the day. We are continuing this legacy as wheat cultivation faces new threats from the changing climate and finding new ways to use genetic wisdom from the past to safeguard our food supply."

- Drs. Raju Soolanayakanahally and Santosh Kumar, Research Scientists, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Wheat cultivation is among the most crucial concerns for climate resilience because it is a staple crop that plays an important role in global food security. For over a century, the world has broken bread from wheat developed by AAFC wheat breeders that adapts to the challenges of the time. AAFC scientists have developed wheat varieties that respond to the threats of the day, whether it was disease, climate or other challenges. Drs. Soolanayakanahally and Kumar are continuing the legacy of Canadian wheat breeding and identifying the climate resilient traits that will benefit farmers today and into the future.

Key takeaways

  • Wheat is a staple crop that plays an important role in global food security but is threatened by rising temperatures and more frequent droughts caused by climate change.
  • The Canadian Heritage Bread Wheat Panel is a wheat lineage bred by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada scientists over the past 175 years.
  • Thirty historic wheat varieties were planted across the prairie region in various soil types to assess their genetic traits using classical physiology and technology-driven, sensor-based drone imaging.
  • The wheat history study allows AAFC wheat breeders to re-mine rare genetic factors to support future wheat varieties that are climate resilient and water efficient.

Photo gallery

Dr. Raju Soolanayakanahally stands in a field of wheat showing the differences in height between old and modern wheat varieties.
Dr. Raju Soolanayakanahally demonstrates the differences in height between old and modern wheat varieties grown at Lowe Farm in Saskatoon.
A drone with four propellers, sensors and a camera hanging from the bottom sitting on a gravel road.
The research team used a drone to capture thermal imagery and read the vital signs of the wheat plants
Dr. Santosh Kumar standing in front of wheat plots with dense forest in the background.
Dr. Santosh Kumar stands in front of wheat plots that demonstrate genetic gains in reducing height and maximizing yield of semi-dwarf wheat varieties.

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