Wheat gone wild

Many wild varieties of wheat have higher concentrations of protein, iron, and zinc than domesticated wheat does. Researchers have now identified and cloned a gene that increases wild wheat’s nutrients by 10 to 15 percent. The discovery team says that the work may lead to domesticated varieties that could reduce malnutrition.

The gene accelerates the maturation and death of wheat plants. As wheat leaves begin to die, they send protein and minerals into the grain, so nutrient content and longevity are linked, says project leader Jorge Dubcovsky of the University of California, Davis. His team reports its findings Nov. 24 in Science.

Domesticated wheat also contains the gene, but at least one copy of it is inactive. To test the gene’s function in domesticated wheat, the researchers blocked all copies of the gene. The resulting wheat had 30 percent less protein and micronutrients and matured several weeks later than normal.

Even that type of wheat could be handy, Dubcovsky notes. For example, it would make great pastries, which are lighter when they contain less protein. It also might suit climates with long growing seasons.

Dubcovsky has plans for breeding several new kinds of wheat. “Finding this gene is like opening a door for us,” he says.

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