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Biotech Wheat for Finer Breads

By Marcia Wood
January 2, 1997

Better breads and other baked goods for tomorrow may result from successes at genetically engineering wheat, by scientists at the Agricultural Research Service. The advance could also raise wheat's value to growers--by increasing the likelihood the grain has protein qualities wanted by bakers and millers.

ARS scientists based in California are the first to boost the amount of breadmaking proteins--known as high-molecular-weight glutenins--in wheat kernels by using molecular biology. They raised the amounts of the proteins by up to 50 percent in kernels of bioengineered wheat they grew in their greenhouse.

So far, eight successive generations of plants have retained the trait. Within a year or so, the California scientists anticipate having enough flour from their test plants to bake experimental loaves.

Currently, they are testing different combinations of genes to increase production of the high-molecular-weight glutenins. They expect flour with the best combinations and amounts of these glutenins to produce light, fine-textured bread.

For the tests, they are using a genetic on-off switch called a promoter. This promoter might also be useful in raising or lowering other key proteins. If so, wheat might be engineered to produce an array of new baking flours or other wheat products for industrial use.

The California experiments, conducted with a spring wheat variety, have led to new studies by ARS colleagues in Nebraska. They want to improve breadmaking proteins in commercial varieties of winter wheats.

Scientific contact: Ann E. Blechl, USDA-ARS Western Regional Research Center, Albany, Calif., phone 510-559-5716