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   from the issue of February 23, 2006

UNL to aid $5 million wheat effort


UNL wheat breeders and geneticists are part of a national scientific team that has received a $5 million grant to harness genetic technologies to improve U.S. wheat quality and disease resistance.

WHEAT RESEARCHERS - Ismail Dweikat (left) and Stephen Baenzinger, the UNL plant breeders and geneticists working on the wheat project, review...
 WHEAT RESEARCHERS - Ismail Dweikat (left) and Stephen Baenzinger, the UNL plant breeders and geneticists working on the wheat project, review a gel image of molecular markers for a population of wheat used in the university's wheat breeding program. Photo by Brett Hampton/IANR.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, announced Feb. 16, will support collaborative research by university and government scientists in 17 states. UNL will receive $162,750 for its portion of the study. USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service administers the grant through its National Research Initiative.

Results of this collaborative effort will change how wheat breeding is done and ultimately help increase U.S. wheat global competitiveness and production efficiency, said Stephen Baenziger, a wheat breeder and geneticist in the university's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources who's working on this project.

The four-year effort aims to implement new molecular technologies called Marker Assisted Selection. Markers are genes or DNA segments that serve as molecular signposts, pinpointing a specific spot on wheat's genetic map.

"We still don't understand the genetics of many of the traits we work with in wheat. In this research, we are going to develop the tools to identify important genes that control traits such as pest resistance or factors that influence yield so we can use them to breed improved wheats," he explained.

While there are many known molecular markers for wheat chromosomes, scientists often don't know whether they are associated with a useful gene, Baenziger said. In this research, scientists will identify markers associated with specific desirable genetic traits and verify those associations. Once that's done, wheat breeders can use the markers to more quickly and precisely select wheat lines that contain specific characteristics, thus the name Marker Assisted Selection.

"Of the thousands of known markers, we need to know the few that are important," he explained.

Researchers will focus on developing markers for complex genetic traits, such as those influencing yield, that wheat growers and industry have identified as top priorities.

"We want to find the genetic basis for traits that are most important to growers, and hopefully to consumers," Baenziger said.

He is working on Nebraska's contribution to this research with Ismail Dweikat, associate professor of plant breeding and genetics in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture who specializes in molecular marker-based plant breeding. The UNL team will focus on environmentally sensitive genetic traits, such as grain yield, test weight and kernel size, as well as how drought influences certain traits.

Involvement in this research also will enhance Nebraska's breeding program.

As part of this research, Nebraska's breeding lines will be analyzed for molecular markers at the USDA's genotyping laboratories. That means future breeding efforts will be much more marker-based and precise, Baenziger said.

"There's a huge local payoff. This will affect every line that we release," he said. "We'll be able to tell people a lot more about the wheats we release and how they'll perform."

Baenziger said he'll use molecular markers to fine tune initial UNL breeding lines more quickly and efficiently.

This grant is for the second phase of this collaborative effort. This group of scientists recently completed protocols for more than 50 molecular markers for previously identified resistance genes and quality traits.

The markers were used to incorporate valuable genes into top wheat breeding lines.



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