Gene Discovery Could Overcome
Aluminum Barrier To Higher Wheat Yields Worldwide
By Hank Becker
October 15, 1996
WASHINGTON, Oct. 15--A
U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist and
colleagues in three other countries have found a gene in rye that could help
wheat, a major food staple, grow on millions of acres worldwide that are now
hostile to the crop.
Plant geneticist J. Perry Gustafson of USDA's
Agricultural Research Service said the
gene enables wheat to resist toxins in aluminum often found in acid soils.
"No plant likes aluminum," he said. "It limits crop productivity
on a large scale around the world."
Overseas and in this country, about 5 billion acres of acid soil harbor
aluminum, he said. "Now that rye's anti-aluminum gene has been located,
the goal is to put it to work using biotechnology in wheat varieties
USDA's Acting Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics,
Catherine Wotecki, said the research is the "kind needed to better feed
future generations of people worldwide. The discovery of this gene could help
farmers utilize the vast acres of acid soil in the world where
aluminum-tolerant cereal grains can be grown."
Gustafson and co-researchers in Brazil, Poland and Mexico discovered the
gene as part of eight years of work on locating new genes in wheat and rye.
"A major objective has been to find genes that breeders worldwide can use
to develop new high-yielding commercial varieties of wheat and rye," said
Gustafson and colleagues made their genetic discovery by unlocking the
mysterious role of protein synthesis in blocking the uptake of aluminum in the
cereal plant's roots. He works at the ARS
Research Unit in Columbia, Mo.
"If the international collaboration and support continues, we should
be able to give wheat breeders lines that are more aluminum tolerant than
existing varieties in about five years," Gustafson said. That would offer
potentially higher yields for a hungry world, he added.
World population, now 5.8 billion, may grow to more than 9 billion by the
year 2046, according to estimates by the U.S. Bureau of the Census.
Other USDA crop research having worldwide implications includes:
- USDA scientists developed a new test that will help plant breeders around
the world find rice plants that have genes for greater resistance to zinc
deficiency. Sulfides formed in rice paddies make zinc unavailable, which costs
farmers million of dollars in lost yields annually. [Contact : Rufus Chaney,
Laboratory, Beltsville, Md. (301) 504-8324]
- USDA scientists developed a soybean strain with both high yields and high
protein levels. This is a first in soybean breeding and will overcome the
problem of decreasing protein levels as seed yield increases. [Contact: Richard
F. Wilson, Soybean and
Nitrogen Fixation Research Laboratory, Raleigh, N.C. (919) 515-3171]
- USDA scientists conducted field studies of a taro variety called Lila. Taro
is a tropical crop that produces underground stems that are an excellent source
of starch and minerals. This variety can triple the yield of this root crop on
tropical farms because it is more efficient than other varieties in using soil
nutrients. Scientists say the findings could help boost taro production
throughout tropical parts of the world. [Contact: Ricardo Goenaga,
Agriculture Research Station, Mayaguez, P.R. (787) 831-3435]
- A USDA scientist developed new cucumbers that, when preserved as pickles,
retain beta carotene that the body converts to vitamin A. Vitamin A is
necessary for normal vision, bone growth and tooth development. Cucumbers grow
well in hot, humid climates of developing countries where many children suffer
vitamin A deficiencies. [Contact: Phillip W. Simon, Vegetable Crops Research
Laboratory, Madison, Wis. (608) 262-1248]
Scientific contact: Larry Darrah or J. Perry Gustafson, ARS,
Research Unit, Columbia, Mo., (573) 882-7318/2349,