Photo by Jacob Jones

In Pullman, A Wheat Geneticist Attempts to Stay Ahead of Climate Change

Knee-high wheat whispers against Professor Kulvinder Gill’s jeans as he snakes his way through a rolling research field just outside the quiet college town of Pullman.

Gill, a wheat geneticist at Washington State University, gently rakes his fingers over the golden rows of possibility, their spiky crowns trembling in the evening breeze.

Kulvinder Gill
Photo by Jacob Jones

A blistering July sun has settled low on the horizon as Gill crouches at a plot of younger, still-green wheat stalks. Gill’s research team has planted this section with more than 20 wheat varieties from around the world, primarily desert areas in Africa and the Middle East.

Just a single gene from a single plant might help feed a warming world.

“Farmers are talking about heat,” Gill says. “A year like this, yes, I think people start paying attention.”

Eastern Washington, like much of the West this year, has endured record heat, drought and disappointing crops. In 2014, its farmers brought in close to $720 million from more than 108 million bushels of wheat. The county surrounding Pullman, according to the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, produces more wheat than any county in the nation.

“I wanted to have more impact…on farmers’ fields,” Gill says of working in the Palouse. “This is wheat country, so it’s possible to have that impact.”

In the bright-lit aisles of the grocery store, it’s easy to forget what farmers are up against each season: Rising equipment costs, inconsistent crop markets, and increasingly, the unpredictability of climate change.

With wheat, researchers estimate a loss of 1 to 2 percent of harvest yield for every degree increase above 82 degrees Fahrenheit, especially during its vulnerable pollination stage. Wheat could become harder to grow just as global demand has started spiking in developing countries.

Gill says the world’s food supply will have to adapt. His research looks to cross popular wheat varieties with heartier, more heat-tolerant wild grasses to produce a “super wheat” capable of thriving in extreme weather. As the appetite for wheat grows, could this super wheat help future farmers stay one step ahead of climate change?

We’re already falling behind, Gill argues. Farmers need this wheat now.

“I see damage being done today,” he says. “Crops are losing significant yield because of heat today. We need to fix that.”

Gill, 53, discovered a passion for wheat cultivation on his family’s small farm in the Punjab region of India where many families till a few acres to help make ends meet. Four generations of his family have worked life from the land, mostly with hand tools. After earning a master’s in plant breeding at Punjab Agricultural University, Gill came to the United States to study genetics in 1986. He went on to teach in Kansas and Nebraska.

In 2002, Gill joined WSU as the Vogel Endowed Chair in Wheat Breeding and Genetics, dedicated to developing new technology for wheat crop improvement. Orville Vogel, a WSU researcher from 1931 to 1973, played a significant role in creating “dwarf wheat,” which grows shorter and yields more grain without collapsing. The shorter wheat helped spark the ‘60s-era Green Revolution in crop production, tripling wheat yields for some farmers.

Crops are losing significant yield because of heat today. We need to fix that.
Kulvinder Gill

Gill now works to build on that foundation. He explains how the dwarf wheat’s mutation keeps plants short by limiting an important growth hormone—a hormone that also helps wheat survive high temperatures. By examining wheat lines grown in arid regions of Africa and the Middle East, Gill has worked to identify dwarfing genes that can handle more heat.

“[Dwarf wheat] genes, although they did great for the past 50-some years, the time has come to replace them with something better,” he says. “They are becoming a bottleneck for further improvement.”

Vara Prasad, a crop physiologist at Kansas State University, has partnered with Gill on a $16.2 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development to understand why certain wheat varieties can tolerate heat and drought better than others. What physical or genetic traits help prevent plants from shutting down under intense heat and can they be transferred?

Prasad notes that climate change is not just warming, but also variability. Farmers have seen hotter summers and colder winters, creating weather shocks that can undermine entire growing seasons if they strike during vulnerable stages in their wheat’s development.

“These extreme shocks will become more common in the future,” says Prasad, who also comes from a small farming background in India. “We wanted to prepare our farmers…to be able to cope with that.”

In search of solutions, the project has already sorted through more than 20,000 varieties to focus on approximately 20 desert wheat lines that can thrive in heat or drought. Researchers planted those in the WSU research field in April to test their adaptability to Northwest weather. As Gill kneels to inspect them, some lines have shriveled while others flourish.

“We’re looking for lines that can maintain good, healthy grain number and grain weight under adverse conditions,” he says. “Once we have these individual lines picked for each trait then we can start combining those into one, to develop a super heat-tolerant line.”

But Gill says the team has also started looking for climate resiliency in other things besides wheat. They have started identifying heat-tolerant genes in wheat’s wild relatives: rye, barley and grasses. What he really wants is a nutritious wheat that grows like a weed.

Kulvinder Gill Wheat in Washington
Kulvinder Gill. Photo by Jacob Jones

Walking back past rows of microscopes, test tube racks and grad students squinting over intricate DNA sequences, Gill pulls open what looks like an industrial refrigerator in his WSU laboratory. Brilliant light and hot air spill out as he reveals the latest batch of wheat plants undergoing heat testing in a controlled growing chamber. Each small green wheat start represents a different line under development.

“It’s really warm,” he says, holding his hand under the heat lamps.

Most of the team’s research takes place in the lab. The team can identify or replicate gene sequences under controlled conditions. They can compare chromosomes across different wheat varieties. They can track the efficiency of a plant’s photosynthesis.

The ultimate goal is identifying which specific genes allow some weeds to thrive in hot weather or drought, so those genes can be transplanted into wheat. Many genes can be transferred by splicing them into bacteria that bonds with a wheat plant’s DNA. Gill and others at WSU also pinpointed an important gene (Ph1) last year that unlocks new gene transfers across grain species—a breakthrough for precise genetic engineering in wheat.

“If it works as good as we think it will work,” he says of Ph1, “it will open the floodgates of transferring genes from wild relatives into wheat.”

Photo by Jacob Jones

A roaring system of fans cools the growing chambers. Grad students sit at crowded work stations, recording DNA markers and measurements. Gill proudly singles out a student set to graduate the next day. As he passes, he quizzes others on their latest projects.

“He’s always very curious to know what’s new,” says Amita Mohan, a WSU research associate in charge of coordinating with the team’s international partners. “His vision is really clear.”

Gill says he hopes to have heat-tolerant wheat lines ready for commercial production within five years. It usually takes two years to develop a specific line and then it moves into the “fast-breeding” stage, which tricks a plant into doubling its own DNA to quickly stabilize a preferred line. Then a new line can move out into the fields of the surrounding Palouse.

“Nothing is more satisfying,” he says.

Standing out amid the swaying stalks of golden wheat, Gill says the harvest will begin soon—weeks earlier than most years. Some farmers have already started, kicking up a haze on the horizon. Gill scans the rows of desert wheats; many already show such promise. A few more years and they may fit together to form the next evolution in wheat.

Sometimes, Gill fantasizes about returning to farm life, planting five or 10 acres outside of town, working life from the land. Until then, he believes he can do more good in the lab.

“There’s this whole world looking for food,” he says. “We don’t have enough.”

Whether in the Palouse or in Punjab, farmers will need help. Gill hopes his work will provide the answer. Genetic modification could spawn new wheat that fertilizes itself or captures carbon dioxide more efficiently. It could cut herbicide use and boost yields, just as previous cross-breeding refined modern wheat.

For now, Gill wants to make sure farmers can keep making a living no matter the climate.Every advantage adds up. Each degree of resilience, each grain of yield, each new discovery helps feed the future.

“The potential is tremendous,” he says. “We need to keep pushing.”

WHEAT FACTS

More than 2 billion bushels are produced annually in the United States.

Washington ranks in the top 5 wheat-producing states in the country.

WSU researchers have combed through 20,000 varieties in search of finding climate change-resistant genes.

  • Jacob Jones

    Jacob Jones has written for the Pacific Northwest Inlander, Washington State Magazine and various daily newspapers.

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