Being able to pinpoint molecular mechanisms within a wheat plant to help researchers select for drought tolerance and quality might be the most important aspect of a new Texas AgriLife Research and Bayer CropScience agreement, officials say.

“The advancement of technology to support the development of crop varieties is essential to the health and prosperity of the state, nation and the world,” said John Sharp, chancellor of The Texas A&M University System. “This multi-year agreement is fundamental to that goal.”

Drought tolerance and tortillas or other flat breads are projects targeted for collaboration, said Dr. Mark Hussey, vice chancellor and dean for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences of the Texas A&M System.

“It is essential that we develop strategic, focused areas of collaboration with major corporate partners in order to maintain and grow our wheat and small grains program,” Hussey said. “This will help ensure we remain connected to the marketplace for the benefit of growers, producers and consumers.”

“We believe our collaboration with Texas AgriLife will help to advance global improvement of wheat genetics and quality, and is particularly important for our focus on key traits like drought tolerance and disease resistance,” said Dr. Mike Gilbert of Lubbock, head of breeding and trait development for Bayer CropScience.

Dr. Craig Nessler, AgriLife Research director, said this will give worldwide exposure to the Texas A&M System wheat improvement programs of AgriLife Research and the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. In addition, it builds a strategic research and development relationship with a company that shares AgriLife’s dedication to crop improvement.

This agreement will allow researchers to utilize biotechnology to make a concentrated effort on drought tolerance for Texas wheat producers, Nessler said, while providing Bayer with non-exclusive access to some of AgriLife Research’s wheat breeding materials to build into its germplasm base.

Importance of drought tolerance

The 2011 drought highlighted the importance of drought-tolerance traits when Texas wheat producers saw the second smallest crop in recent history, said Rodney Mosier, Texas Wheat Producers executive vice president in Amarillo. Production only reached 49.4 million bushels, less than half that of an average year.

“Funding research to develop high-yielding, drought-tolerant, disease- and insect-resistant varieties for Texas producers has always been a top priority of the Texas Wheat Producers Board,” said Mosier.  “We are pleased to see the development of this partnership and look forward to continued investment in Texas wheat research.”

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said the worldwide need for food is growing with the exploding population.

“Strategic partnerships can yield food security, a necessity for any family,” Staples said. “This collaboration is a reminder of the need to develop technology that empowers Texas food and fiber producers to defy all odds so they can continue producing the safest, most affordable food and fiber of anywhere in the world. I commend Bayer CropSciences for investing in this noble cause and the Texas A&M System for continuing their tradition of bold leadership.”

This agreement is in alignment with decisions made more than 10 years ago when AgriLife Research’s wheat breeding program established two Centers for Excellence – one in Amarillo and one in College Station – and developed a strategic plan, said Dr. John Sweeten of Amarillo, chair of the AgriLife Small Grains Advisory Committee.

Each center houses numerous scientists and utilizes a multidisciplinary approach to cultivar development, including a combination of conventional and molecular breeding techniques, Sweeten said. The Small Grains Strategic Plan was updated in 2008, and this new agreement directly addresses four of the seven major goals of that plan.

AgriLife Research also maintains a wheat quality lab at Texas A&M that concentrates on improving bread quality and working toward specialty wheat projects such as tortillas and other flat breads, said Dr. David Baltensperger, Texas A&M soil and crop sciences department head.

Quality also a focus

While Texas A&M’s wheat varietieswere not always known for quality, the work from the wheat lab has resulted in great progress towards improving specific quality traits, Baltensperger said. The milling and baking industry gave high rankings to recent AgriLife releases due to the continuous improvement in bread quality.

“And today, the tortilla market and the chip market from tortillas is a bigger consumer of wheat flour than loaf bread,” he said. “Because this is an area we intend to focus our attention, we believe we can make additional strides and a quality difference worldwide.”

And most recently, the Texas AgriLife Genomics and Bioinformatics Core was established in College Station, said Dr. Bill McCutchen, AgriLife Research executive associate director.Led by Dr. Charlie Johnson, the genomics core provides scientists with the capability to quickly advance important traits found in multiple research plots across Texas.

“The molecular-marker system provides a genetic road-map of sorts,” McCutchen said. “We now have the ability with genomicsto integrate and develop superior wheat varieties for yield, drought tolerance, quality and other traits in a much shorter period of time as compared to conventional means of breeding.”

The AgriLife Research small grains program has provided commercially available releases such as TAM 111, TAM 112, TAM 113, TAM 203, TAM 304, TAM 401 and TAM soft 700 in recent years, said Dr. Jackie Rudd, an AgriLife Research wheat breeder in Amarillo.

TAM 111 is the No. 1 variety in Texas, Kansas and the Oklahoma Panhandle, and No. 3 in Colorado and Nebraska, Rudd said.

All TAM varieties are licensed to and marketed by private industry, as AgriLife Research and Texas A&M are in the business of developing new varieties but are not a commercial seed company, said Steve Brown, Texas Foundation Seed Service program director in Vernon.

Brown said Texas Foundation Seed Service’s role is to take a new TAM wheat variety from the research program and expand the seed to a quantity large enough to make it available to a commercial seed company that licenses the new variety for further release.

“AgriLife scientists will continue to develop and release TAM varieties in the same manner as has been done in the past,” he said.

“However, this agreement will facilitate more rapid development of desirable traits incorporated in new TAM varieties to be made available to wheat producers throughout Texas and other traditional hard red wheat production areas of the U.S. and on a global scale,” Brown said.

AgriLife Research’s wheat breeding program is a strong one that has been built on public funding and producer support, as well as with private collaborations, Rudd said. This latest agreement will only enhance the future of the program.

Although gains have been steady, a lower investment in wheat genetic research over the years has left wheat yield gains lagging compared to corn, which has many more researchers dedicated to its advancement, he said.

“These types of collaborations ultimately lead to direct benefits to producers and consumers, and they will be the ultimate winners,” Rudd said.