Can Syrian seeds save climate-challenged U.S. wheat?

When the seed bank in Tal Hadya, Syria, was threatened with destruction in the civil war that has engulfed that country, the seeds were smuggled out. Now, some of those seeds — from wild wheat relatives in the Fertile Crescent — are part of a breeding project in the American Midwest in the hopes that they can protect the U.S. wheat crop from the pests and disease brought by a changing climate, according to FERN’s latest story, published with Yale Environment 360.

“Rising temperatures are already leading to drops in midwestern crop yields that could, under current medium- and high-emissions scenarios, lead to further drops of as much as 4 percent per year,” writes Mark Schapiro. “In the heart of U.S. cereal and grain country, new pests and diseases are following the hot and dry conditions northward — and frequently overwhelming the ability of agricultural chemicals to fight them off.”

One of those pests is the Hessian fly, which in recent years has been causing yield losses on average of 10 percent a year in the Midwest wheat crop. The fly’s larvae used to be killed off by winter cold, but as climate change proceeds, that cold is coming later in the year and the larvae are surviving.

In greenhouse tests, one of the Syrian seeds, a wild relative of wheat known as Aegilops tauschii, was the sole variety that could withstand the Hessian-fly onslaught to any significant degree.

“Wheat has the most complex genome of any of the world’s major crops, one of the reasons efforts to genetically engineer wheat traits have thus far not succeeded, as they have with corn, soybeans and other crops,” writes Schapiro. “It also means it has multiple genetic relatives. Those so-called ‘crop wild relatives’ are turning out to be critical tools for breeders as food-growing areas around the world face an unprecedented spectrum of new conditions.”

“Wheat’s relatives are closely related to what was domesticated,” says Jesse Poland, assistant professor of plant pathology at Kansas State University. “The difference is that domestication selected for genes and traits that increase productivity, but during that process they lost qualities of resistance to diseases and insects.” Those hyper-productive varieties, dependent on agri-chemical boosters, are showing their weakness in the face of new diseases and pests. So breeders are reaching deep into the history of wheat, as they are for other crops, to bring back some of those lost characteristics.