Scientific Trait Development: Soil
By Jaclyn Tan
When it comes to small grains breeding, P. Stephen Baenziger is the only university expert in the entire state of Nebraska.
"The best piece of advice I ever got when I was a graduate student was that most states can only afford one person in the job you're hired in, so do your job," Baenziger said.
Baenziger is the Eugene W. Price Distinguished Professor of Biotechnology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Since 1986, he's researched winter triticale and winter barley, but his main focus is winter wheat. It's his job to breed new varieties of these small grains crops that yield more grain, are more disease resistant and grow with fewer inputs such as water and fertilizer, but still are of good quality.
New Grant Leads to New Possibilities
Baenziger said he is always trying to do three things: 1) create new cultivars, or varieties, of wheat to solve new challenges, 2) create new breeding methods and 3) teach the next generation of plant breeders.
Thanks to a $2 million endowment from Bayer CropScience, Baenziger will soon be able to do all those things as he becomes the first Nebraska Wheat Growers Presidential Chair for wheat breeding.
Bayer CropScience, one of the world's largest agriculture chemical companies, produces chemicals such as insecticides and herbicides to protect crops. The company also invests in research and development of agricultural crop seeds and it is currently an industry leader in cotton seed, canola and hybrid rice, Baenziger said. "They've decided that they want to go into wheat, and so they came to the University of Nebraska because we have a longstanding wheat improvement program," he said.
The collaboration will fund more research on wheat, and will also fund graduate student assistantships. He said the Bayer collaboration is in addition to the funding he gets from the Nebraska Wheat Board, companies such as ConAgra and BASF, and various other federal and state grants.
More recently, however, Baenziger has had to consider two new challenges: climate change and sustainability.
Climate Change Challenge
There are two aspects of climate change, Baenziger said. "The first aspect is that the climate will be changing as a trend," he said. "So if you believe in global warming, which I do believe in, you will see that in Nebraska we will get progressively warmer."
Baenziger said he believes global warming will happen based on data trends observed by researchers and experts in his field. These progressively warmer temperatures means wheat varieties will have to be more heat tolerant to grow well. "Right now we know that Oklahoma is warmer than Nebraska." Baenziger said. "So maybe I breed wheats that today would be adapted to Oklahoma, but tomorrow will be adapted to Nebraska. That's easy to do."
The complicated part to deal with is the second aspect of climate change, which Baenziger described as "increased variations around the trend line." That means the weather will fluctuate to greater extremes, he explained, such as extreme heat or cold, or extreme rainfall or drought.
Going back to the example with the Oklahoma wheat varieties, Baenziger said, those heat tolerant varieties are daylight-insensitive. Daylight-insensitive wheat varieties depend on temperature to flower, which works in Oklahoma because there are few late frosts, he said.
But in Nebraska, he added, late frosts are possible, which is why the state currently grows daylight-sensitive wheat varieties. Daylight-sensitive wheat varieties depend on the amount of daylight to flower, and more importantly, they are more winter hardy than the Oklahoma varieties, Baenziger said.
"So the question becomes," he said, "what do you do if you go into a climate scenario where you're colder in the winter, and then warmer in the summer and you still can have the late frosts?" That becomes a problem, Baenziger said, because researchers haven't managed to breed wheat varieties that can handle those conditions in the same growing season.
The difficulty of responding to climate change is mainly because it takes up to 12 years to create a new variety of wheat, Baenziger said. Researchers say sometimes climate changes take place quickly, and there may not be enough time to produce a new wheat variety to meet this change, he said.
Managing Sustainability: Quantity Versus Quality
Another challenge for plant breeders is balancing the demand for quantity of grain that their varieties will yield, as well as the quality of grain.
Conventional wheat growers are paid based on the weight, or the amount of grain, that they harvest, Baenziger said, so crop yield is more important to them than other aspects of the grain such as disease resistance and end-use quality. The best agronomic lines of wheat have excellent yields and test weights, which is the gain volume weight based on which the grower is paid, and also have acceptable end-use quality and acceptable disease resistance, he said.
However, he added, a growing number of organic growers market their products on the basis of the wheat quality. These farmers use organic methods that don't use modern inputs such as pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Baenziger said they focus less on the crop yield and more on the end-use quality because they can get a higher price for that quality of wheat. As a result, the organic market would be good for a line of wheat with high end-use quality, but fewer bushels per acre, he said.
The Future of Wheat Breeding: Genomics
Baenziger said current small grains breeding methods rely heavily on the process of visually selecting and measuring the seeds and plants, known as phenotyping.
In the near future, he said advances in genotyping- looking at a plant's genetic markers to figure out which gene results in higher yield, crop quality, disease resistance and so on- could result in a more efficient method of wheat breeding that would result in better varieties.
This new technology will bolster the current aims of researchers at the wheat program at UNL, which is to produce wheat varieties that have four characteristics: 1) they must be able to survive winter, 2) they must be resistant to stem rust, which is a devastating cereal crop disease caused by a fungus, 3) they must grow well in the field and mature at the right time, and 4) they "must make a good loaf of bread or a good Asian noodle," Baenziger said.
Making a "Good Loaf of Bread"
So what kind of wheat makes a "good" loaf of bread or Asian noodle?
One important aspect is the wheat's protein content, he explained. A good loaf of bread starts with wheat that is at least 12 percent protein, as opposed to more carbohydrate and lipids.
This amount of good quality gluten protein helps create smaller holes in the bread, Baenziger said, which allows peanut butter or butter to be spread evenly across a slice of bread. "Ideally, what you want is a loaf of bread that when you spread peanut butter or butter on it, ... the bread stays where it is, and the peanut butter is the one that gives, that has to be spread, not the reverse," he explained.
Beyond the Research and Into People's Lives
Baenziger measures his success based on his impact in two areas: his research and his students. He said it's easy to tell if his research has been useful. "As a plant breeder, the easiest way to measure whether or not you've done something well is how your products have been received," Baenziger said.
The evidence is clear: More than 60 percent of the wheat grown in Nebraska are varieties released from the UNL's wheat breeding program, he said, and these varieties are also grown in surrounding states such as South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wyoming, Colorado and Kansas.
In the spring of 2011, Baenziger won the Outstanding Research and Creative Activity award, a UNL-wide award recognizing faculty members for outstanding research and creative activity of national or international significance.
As for his students, Baenziger said he's proud to have trained students who have gone on to do well.
"One is a member of parliament in Turkey, and he will probably be the most knowledgeable person in agriculture in that parliament. A couple of students have just gone to major seed companies in corn.
One is literally Dr. Pepper - he breeds peppers for one of the big vegetable seed companies. I've another student who's also with that same company who's not in vegetable breeding, but in corn breeding. Other ones have gone on to be very successful in the USDA," he said.
But Baenziger said the part he loves most, and his original reason for becoming a plant breeder, is that his research has helped feed so many people. "I personally think that people should be fed," he said.
Baenziger said his work at the University of Nebraska, together with collaborations with other institutions, has allowed him to do that. He said thanks to genetic improvements to wheat varieties, there is enough wheat produced to feed almost 3 million people daily who otherwise wouldn't have enough to eat.
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