Full Circle: Perennial Wheat Could Fulfill a Tradition and Transform a Landscape

By Tim Steury, Washington State Magazine

One of the major obstacles confronting plant pathologist Tim Murray (left) and geneticist Steve Jones in their quest for perennial wheat is the time required for field testing. Work in the greenhouse helps to reduce that time.

Research on perennial wheat has proffered not only promise, but genetically, a big surprise. Conventional wisdom has long held that the factors determining whether a plant is annual or perennial are very complex, influenced in subtle ways by genes spread over a number of the plant’s chromosomes.

Faced with this complexity, breeding perennial habits into domestic wheat would seem daunting, if not impossible, due to the fact that the chromosomes of wheat and its wild relatives do not pair.

Even though hybridization is still possible, if chromosomes do not pair, says WSU geneticist Steve Jones, two things are likely to occur. One is sterility. The other is that the chromosomes cannot exchange genetic material.

“If you cross normal wheat A with normal wheat B,” says Jones, “they combine and recombine chromosomes like most living things do. But in these crosses they don’t. So that greatly complicates things.”

Complicated as combining the best traits from wheat and its wild relatives is, however, what Jones and plant pathologist Tim Murray have found concerning the genetic stimulus toward perennialism very much contradicts the conventional wisdom.

Contact: Timothy Murray, Professor and Chair, Plant Pathology, 509-335-7515, tim_murray@wsu.edu; or Stephen Jones, Associate Scientist, 509-335-6198, joness@wsu.edu

Progress in Breeding Perennial Grains

Author: T.S. Cox, D.L. Van Tassel, C.M. Cox, and L.R. DeHaan
Date: July 2010
Affiliation: The Land Institute
Abstract: Annual cereal, legume and oilseed crops remain staples of the global food supply. Because most annual crops have less extensive, shorter-lived root systems than do perennial species, with a correspondingly lower capacity to manage nutrients and water, annual cropping systems tend to suffer higher levels of soil erosion and generate greater water contamination than do perennial systems. In an effort to reduce soil degradation and water contamination simultaneously – something that neither no-till nor organic cropping alone can accomplish – researchers in the United States, Australia, and other countries have begun breeding perennial counterparts of annual grain and legume crops. Initial cycles of hybridization, propagation and selection in wheat, wheatgrasses, sorghum, sunflower and Illinois bundleflower have produced perennial progenies with phenotypes intermediate between wild and cultivated species, along with improved grain production. Further breeding cycles will be required to develop agronomically adapted perennial crops with high grain yields.
Source:  http://www.landinstitute.org/vnews/display.v/ART/2011/04/22/4db199966cf1a