By 2050, the UN has estimated that wheat production needs to increase by 60% in order to feed the world’s population, estimated to reach around 9.6 billion. A hefty task considering current agricultural practices and climate change, researchers have found that wild varieties of food crops contain genetic mutations that may be able to cope with the changing climate.
Over 28 years, researchers conducted a study following the adaptation of 10 wild populations of emmer wheat in Israel. Experiencing an overall environmental temperature increase of two degrees Celsius during the study, although some specimens in the study died out, others managed to adapt.
According to Yong-Bi Fu, the lead author of the study, “We got some very exciting results...One of which is that we can demonstrate that over 28 years, and 28 generations, you can see the wild relative of the plant accumulate more genetic mutations, and we found that most of the population is still adaptable.”
Suggesting that this insight has helped in improving our understanding of how plants may adapt to future climate change, Dr. Fu added, “This mutation is crucial, and we can see that we need a lot of effort to protect and conserve the crop's diversity in the wild, natural population.”
When looking into factors that promoted the most genetic change among the crops, the researchers found that temperature changes was the major contributor. With some variation in adaptability expected, they noted that wheat populations 1 and 9 fared the best, showing the most genetic potential to adapt to ongoing global warming, whereas wheat populations 4,7 and 10 were more genetically vulnerable, displaying the highest mutational burdens.
Although saying that their sample size was small and thus results may be inconclusive, they nevertheless praise their findings for demonstrating how evolutionary changes occur at the genetic, chromosomal, individual and population level as ever before in wheat.
Thus, in a similar fashion to UK scientists developing ways to clone disease-resistant genes from wild wheat to create broad-spectrum resistance in domesticated crops, Dr. Fu and his team eventually plan to create a similar approach to duplicate climate-resistant genes from wild wheat to make domesticated versions more resilient to climate change.
Kinver, Mark: BBC
Fu, Yong-Bi: PNAS