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Wheat has a big climate change problem looming. Peoria Ag Lab researchers want to address it before it's too late

Plant physiologist William Hay looks at wheat plants exposed to heightened CO2 levels in a growth chamber experiment at the Peoria Ag Lab.
Agriculture Research Service
Plant physiologist William Hay looks at wheat plants exposed to heightened CO2 levels in a growth chamber experiment at the Peoria Ag Lab.

Wheat crops are facing a one-two punch from a changing climate.

Scientists at the Peoria Ag Lab are researching ways to protect the plant from both higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and fungal contamination.

Plant physiologist William Hay said wheat will still grow at higher CO2 levels. But it's less fit to eat as a result.

"You get much more starch. So you actually get a significant loss of protein, which can have a long term impact on the wheat quality, the baking quality, and its utility for food production," said Hay.

That change in nutritional quality also alters wheat's resistance to Fusarium head blight, a fungal contamination that makes grain useless for human or animal consumption.

"At higher CO2 levels, when these changes occur in the plant, the moderately resistant lines that we have (that) normally would be protected from the fungus are now also changing quite a bit in nutritional quality," said Martha Vaughn, a supervisory molecular biologist at the Peoria Ag Lab." So the protein level is dropping much more than the susceptible varieties."

Fusarium head blight thrives in warmer, wetter condition, compounding the risk climate change threatens to wheat crops.

Hay and Vaughn are screening parent lines to identify the cross-breeds with both heightened fungal resistance and maintained protein content in light of more atmospheric CO2. They are working with wheat breeders to identify and propagate the strains most desirable to enhance overall crop resiliency.

"As we do these continuous crosses, and we provide information about the traits that we identify in our experiments in growth chambers and in CO2-enriched greenhouses where we can look at these traits, we can give the information to the breeders," said Vaughn. "And then the breeders can ensure that they're generating the next cultivars for the next generation at higher CO2 that will have maintained protein content and resistance."

Vaughn said that by identifying pathogens likely to become more widespread in the Midwest as the climate changes, mitigation strategies can be deployed earlier.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.