Israeli wheat gene discovery offers chance of better nutrition for world’s undernourished

GPC-B1 does not alter the taste or composition of the grain. It does, however, make the grain mature more quickly while also boosting its protein and micro-nutrient content by between 10 to 15 percent.Wheat could soon take a walk on …

GPC-B1 does not alter the taste or composition of the grain. It does, however, make the grain mature more quickly while also boosting its protein and micro-nutrient content by between 10 to 15 percent.Wheat could soon take a walk on the wild side. An ancient strain of wild wheat found growing in Israel has enabled a team of Israeli and American scientists to boost the protein, zinc and iron content in modern wheat, an accomplishment that could help supply more nutritious food to millions of people worldwide.

The team of researchers from the University of Haifa, University of California, Davis, and the US Department of Agriculture identified a gene found growing in the Israeli wild wheat that raises the grain’s nutritional content. Using conventional breeding techniques the researchers, who published their results in the journal Science, introduced this gene, (GPC-B1), to cultivated wheat varieties dramatically improving the nutritional value of the grain.

Wild emmer wheat was first harvested on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea 10,000 years ago by Stone Age man, who used it to bake bread. Gradually, over the centuries, as wheat became domesticated the gene that enhances the protein, zinc and iron value in the grain, became non-functional.

Annual wheat production is an estimated 620 million tons of grain worldwide. It is one of the major crops feeding the world’s population. It provides about 20 percent of all calories consumed. The World Health Organization estimates that more than two billion people get too little zinc and iron in their diet, and more than 160-million children under the age of five lack an adequate protein supply.

“Even small increases in wheat’s nutritional value may help decrease deficiencies in protein and key micronutrients,” said Prof. Jorge Dubcovsky, a geneticist and wheat breeder and the leader of this research group in a news release.

Wild emmer wheat was first discovered in Israel about 100 years ago by a scientist called Aaron Aaronsohn, who found the plant growing wild near the Sea of Galilee and along the Mediterranean coastal plain. Even then, Aaronsohn recognized that this new wild wheat could be used to revolutionize modern cultivation.

Some 60 years on, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, plant scientist Moshe Feldman, of the Weizmann Institute found the same wild wheat at Stone Age villages along Israel’s northern coast. He sent samples to the US.

In 1997, Dubcovsky, who is based at University of California, Davis, put together a team to research the genetic qualities of wild and domesticated wheat strains.

In the journal Science, the US-Israeli team described how they cloned GPC-B1 from the wild wheat and then cross-bred it back into new wheat strains without the need for controversial genetic modification.

GPC-B1 does not alter the taste or composition of the grain, according to Dubcovsky. It does, however, make the grain mature more quickly while also boosting its protein and micro-nutrient content by between 10 to 15 percent in the wheat varieties studied so far.

To prove that all these effects were produced by this gene, the researchers created genetically modified wheat lines with reduced levels of the GPC gene using a technique called RNA interference.

Dubcovsky said the research team was surprised to find that all cultivated pasta and bread wheat varieties analyzed so far have a nonfunctional copy of GPC-B1, suggesting that this gene was lost during the domestication of wheat.

“The reintroduction of the functional gene from the wild species into commercial wheat varieties has the potential to increase the nutritional value of a large proportion of our current cultivated wheat varieties,” said Dubcovsky. “Furthermore, this discovery provides a clear example of the value and importance of conserving the wild germplasm – the source of genetic diversity – of our crop species.”

“What this gene does is it uses better what is in the plant already, so rather than leave the protein and the zinc and iron in the straw, we’ve moved a little bit more into the grain,” Dubcovsky added.

According to the Chronicle report, the scientists now plan to distribute the seeds freely to farmers throughout the world through international public seed agencies. India, China, Argentina and Canada have already launched projects the make the new wheat available.

This research was supported by the National Research Initiative of USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, and by BARD, the United States-Israel Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund.

In a related development, researchers at the Institute of Evolution at the University of Haifa led by Prof. Eviatar Nevo, have announced that they are working to improve strains of cultivated grains by using genes from wild strains. The goal of the research is to create stronger, higher quality strains of wheat, barley and other grains.

Nevo, like Dubcovsky, believes that domestication over the centuries has led to a genetic erosion of today’s grains, and an increased susceptibility to disease, drought, and salt.

“The Institute of Evolution at the University of Haifa houses the largest gene banks for common wheat, barley, oats and lettuce that have been genetically and agriculturally analyzed,” says Nevo. “These gene pools contain many genes that are resistant to ecological forces such as drought or salt and genes resistant to viruses, bacteria and fungi. The Institute of Evolution is concentrating on mapping the genes essential for survival, cloning them and transferring them to cultivated grains, which will create disease-resistant agricultural strains.”

According to Nevo, modern technological methods enable discovery of genes in wild plants that have tremendous commercial potential, an agricultural revolution based on genetics not on agricultural technology.

“We are in an era of population explosion, and must find ways to increase world food production. Genetic enhancements will enable strengthening cultivated plants such as wheat and barley and expanding food production and quality,” said Nevo.

About Nicky Blackburn

Editor and Israel Director, Nicky Blackburn has worked extensively as a journalist and editor both in Britain and Israel for a range of national and international publications including The Cambridge Evening News, London News, Travel Weekly, Israel High Tech Investor, and The Times of London. She was the Associate Editor at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine, and the High-Tech Correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.