Colorado State Researchers Collaborate on $5 Million Project to Develop Dna Markers to Create Superior Wheat-Based Food Products

Colorado State University researchers will identify DNA markers for traits associated with the quality of different wheat varieties for consumer products as part of a $5 million grant. The U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to develop higher-quality and disease-resistant varieties of wheat was announced today.

Colorado State will receive $162,000 over four years to identify molecular, or DNA, markers that make some wheat varieties superior for being milled into flour, for baking bread and for making high-quality Asian noodles. In addition, the Colorado State team will work to identify chromosome segments that help wheat varieties to resist sprouting before the crop is harvested, resist diseases and insects and tolerate herbicides. The project will focus on identifying genetic markers, or the genetic maps, for these traits.

"We hope that this project will greatly benefit the U.S. agricultural industry and our wheat producers’ ability to compete in global markets," said Scott Haley, Colorado State wheat breeder. "Wheat is one of the largest crops in Colorado, and the success of wheat producers across the state to raise a disease-resistant and high-quality wheat crop that can be marketed for specific consumer products across the globe plays a significant role in the state’s economic health."

The USDA-funded project includes the application of a genetic marker technology that has not yet been widely used by researchers to develop new varieties of wheat. The technology allows wheat researchers to use molecular markers, or landmarks in chromosome maps, to monitor whether specific traits are "transferred" to new wheat varieties while they are being developed.

This technology, called MAS or marker assisted selection, helps wheat breeders to create desirable combinations of genes for beneficial traits – such as disease or insect resistance – and incorporate the combinations into new wheat varieties.

This technology allows genes from the same species – wheat – to be transferred among varieties using traditional cross-breeding techniques with wheat "parent lines" and repeated breeding with new combinations among varieties. The technique does not create varieties considered to be GMOs – genetically modified organisms – and the varieties developed by MAS technology are accepted by all local and international wheat markets. The new genetic information developed by the project will potentially allow breeders to more effectively create new trait combinations for new varieties.

The new genetic information developed by the project will allow increased and quicker production of new varieties of wheat.

"The continuous improvement of wheat varieties in the United States is essential to produce better bread, cookies and pasta products and also to maintain the international competitiveness of U.S. wheat," Haley said.

Key collaborators in the effort are researchers at four modern molecular marker laboratories recently established by the USDA to provide wheat breeders with rapid testing capability for important marker traits. Because most new genetic information about wheat is available to the public, the United States must compete for market shares by quickly implementing new and better genetic technologies and varieties. The consortium of researchers includes university-based wheat research specialists from 17 major wheat producing states and USDA wheat researchers at several other locations throughout the U.S.

     The project also includes an extensive outreach component to share information about these new technologies with the public and an educational program to attract new students to agriculture and to train the students as plant breeders.

      Also collaborating with Haley on the university’s grant-related projects are Pat Byrne and Nora Lapitan in the soil and crop sciences department at Colorado State.

Public-sector researchers, such as those at Colorado State, are largely responsible for providing new and enhanced wheat varieties to U.S. producers. In the United States, 75 percent to 80 percent of the total wheat crop is planted with varieties developed by public research universities, accounting for more than $5 billion of the wheat industry each year. In Colorado and other wheat producing states in the Great Plains, this figure is roughly 90 percent.