According to the research, the grain yield could be increased by up to 90 per cent in some European countries when compared to typical harvests from commonly used varieties.
The authors say, if achieved, such improvements would go a long way to feeding the growing world population and would reduce pressure to convert wild habitats to farmland. Using existing data on the contribution of different genes to individual plant traits such as size, shape, metabolism and growth, the researchers ran simulations to create ‘perfect’ wheat plants that were tailored to each region.
When compared to the performance of locally adapted cultivars, in all cases they found wheat varieties were underperforming for grain yield, with an obvious ‘genetic yield gap’ between reality and possibility.
The scientists behind the study define a crop’s ‘genetic yield potential’ as the highest yield achievable by an idealised variety – in other words, a plant with a genome that allows it to capture water, sunlight and nutrients more efficiently than any other.
Lead researcher Dr Mikhail Semenov said, “Improving genetic yield potential and closing the genetic yield gap is important to achieve global food security. Europe is the largest wheat producer, delivering more than a third of wheat globally, but European wheat's yield potential from genetic improvements has not yet been realised.”
Dr Semenov and colleague, Dr Nimai Senapati, looked at six locally adapted wheat cultivars at 13 sites across the continent, representing the major and contrasting wheat-growing regions in Europe - from Spain in the south to Denmark in the north, and Hungary in the east to the UK in the west.
Using a computer model called Sirius, they ran millions of simulations, which demonstrated that many of the wheat traits that contribute to the amount of grain produced were well below their optimums.
Simulations were based on extensive data on the natural genetic variation underpinning major plant traits. These included tolerance and response to drought and heat stresses, the size and orientation of the light-capturing upper leaves, and the timing of key life cycle events.
Published in the journal Global Food Security, the results show that if their genomes were ‘fine-tuned’ to their environments, that wheat plants potentially produce up to 15 tonnes of grain per ha, with the idealised average 5.2 tonnes per ha greater than the current average.
“In other words, despite intensive wheat breeding efforts, current local cultivars were found to be far from the achievable optimum, meaning that a large genetic yield gap still exists for European wheat,” commented Prof Malcolm Hawkesford, who heads up the Plant Sciences Department at Rothamsted Research.
Wheat was first domesticated about 11,000 years ago, but despite this – and not to mention the sequencing of its entire genome in 2018 – the crop is still some way from being at its ‘genetic best’.
It has been predicted that global food production needs to increase by about 70% by 2050 to feed an estimated nine billion people.