Texas A&M University, Bayer CropScience partnering to try and pinpoint molecular mechanisms within a wheat plant to help researchers select for drought tolerance and quality

COLLEGE STATION, Texas , February 20, 2012 (press release) – 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 agreement between Texas AgriLife Research and Bayer CropScience, 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 between Bayer CropScience and The Texas A&M University System is fundamental to that goal.”

Drought tolerance and tortillas or other flat breads are two 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 public breeding, agronomic and supporting programs in wheat and small grains,” Hussey said. “This ensures 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.

“Additionally, we will be working together to develop improved genetics to serve specific end-use areas such as the flat bread market, which is not only important, but continuing to grow,” Gilbert said.

Dr. Craig Nessler, director of AgriLife Research, said the Bayer collaboration will give worldwide exposure to the 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 a concentrated effort to be made toward drought tolerance for Texas wheat producers utilizing biotechnology, Nessler said, and in return provide Bayer with non-exclusive access to some of AgriLife Research’s wheat breeding materials to build into its germplasm base.

Wheat variety trials across the state help Texas AgriLife Research determine what varieties work best in what regions. (Texas AgriLife Research photo by Kay Ledbetter)

The importance of drought-tolerance traits was highlighted in the 2011 drought, when Texas wheat producers saw the second smallest wheat crop in recent history with production only reaching 49.4 million bushels, said Rodney Mosier, Texas Wheat Producers executive vice president in Amarillo. The 2010 production was 120 million bushels.

“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.”

“The worldwide need for food is growing with our exploding population. Strategic partnerships can yield food security, a necessity for any family,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said.

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

Bob Avant, AgriLife Research director of corporate relations, said AgriLife Research has been aggressively seeking long-term, strategic agreements with major corporations in the agriculture and life sciences space.

“This agreement is a great example of how a major, worldwide corporation can work with AgriLife Research to move university intellectual property into the market place,” Avant said.

“With this collaboration, we believe we can make a focused effort toward drought tolerance,” said Dr. Jackie Rudd, an AgriLife Research wheat breeder in Amarillo. “We already have a strong team working on drought resources, but now we will have funding to concentrate our effort on the molecular mechanisms of drought tolerance and introduce that very important set of traits into new varieties and enhance our breeding efforts.”

More than 10 years ago, AgriLife Research’s wheat breeding program established two Centers for Excellence – one in Amarillo and one in College Station. Each houses numerous scientists and utilizes a multidisciplinary approach to cultivar development, including a combination of conventional and molecular breeding techniques, said Dr. John Sweeten of Amarillo, chair of the AgriLife Small Grains Advisory Committee.

“We established a strategic plan in 2001 to cover all aspects of the small grains program,” Sweeten said. “The Small Grains Strategic Plan was updated in 2008 and this new agreement directly addresses four of the seven major goals outlined in that plan.”

In addition to the two Centers for Excellence, AgriLife Research has a wheat quality lab in College Station concentrating on improving bread quality and working toward specialty wheat projects such as tortillas and other flat breads, said Dr. David Baltensperger, professor and head of the Texas A&M soil and crop sciences department.

While Texas A&M’s wheat varieties were not always known for their quality, the work from the wheat quality lab has resulted in great progress towards specific traits for quality, Baltensperger said. Just recently, 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.”

The most recent addition in this push for excellence was the establishment of the Texas AgriLife Genomics and Bioinformatics Core in College Station, said Dr. Bill McCutchen, AgriLife Research executive associate director.

“The genomics core, led by Dr. Charlie Johnson, provides our scientists with the capability to quickly advance important traits that we find in our multiple research plots across Texas, traits such as drought tolerance,” McCutchen said.

“The molecular-marker system provides a genetic road-map of sorts, and we can now advance our breeding and agronomic research programs at a much faster pace,” he said. “We now have the ability with genomics to 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.”

McCutchen said by combining “Our strong breeding, pest management and agronomic expertise with genetic knowledge, we, AgriLife, are able to produce significant advancements across cropping systems. Not only does this technology apply to wheat, but to all crops, livestock, diseases – anything with DNA.

“The discoveries also mean that Texas A&M and AgriLife are able to create new patentable intellectual property,” he said.

The germplasm developed by AgriLife’s wheat program is important to more than just U.S. consumers and producers, said Dr. Amir Ibrahim, project leader of the AgriLife Research small grains breeding program.

“The work this collaboration will allow us to do will create markets beyond the boundaries of Texas and the U.S. Great Plains states for Texas wheat,” Ibrahim said.

The AgriLife Research small grains program has provided commercially available releases from Texas A&M such as TAM 111, TAM 112, TAM 203, TAM 304, TAM 401 and TAM soft 700 over recent years, Rudd said. The latest release is TAM 113.

TAM 111 is the No. 1 variety in Texas, Kansas and the Oklahoma Panhandle, and No. 3 in Colorado and Nebraska, he 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 large enough quantity to make it available to a commercial seed company that licenses the new variety.

“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 that will be made available to wheat producers throughout Texas and other traditional hard red wheat production areas of the U.S.,” Brown said. “In addition, wheat improvements developed through this collaboration will more rapidly advance development of wheat varieties that benefit producers on a global scale.”

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.

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