Students Staff

30 August 2016

Wheat research to help cope with world’s booming population

Dr Tracy Lawson

Dr Tracy Lawson

Improving wheat yield to help cope with feeding the world’s booming population is the aim behind a new research project led by scientists at Essex.

Globally, wheat is the most important staple crop, providing 20% of daily calories and protein. Due to population growth and changing diets, world demand for wheat is expected to increase by 60% by 2050.

Led by Dr Tracy Lawson at Essex, the £650,000 Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Industry Partnership Award will also involve agri-tech company Bayer and the National Institute for Agriculture Botany in Cambridge. The Essex team will also include Professor Christine Raines and Dr Ulrike Bechtold, from the University’s School of Biological Sciences.

The three-year project will look at two elements for improving plant photosynthesis − the process that enables plants to harvest energy from the sun and convert it to products for food and fuel.

The first part will examine how stomatal pores on the leaf surface respond to changes in light. Stomata control the amount of carbon dioxide uptake into the leaf for photosynthesis as well as the amount of water leaving the leaf for cooling. The research will investigate the speed of stomatal responses in different wheat varieties to identify the fastest stomata that are most effective in achieving maximum photosynthesis. Linking genetic markers with the physiology of the plant can be used to design higher-yielding wheat varieties for the future.

“We will be using a thermal camera to detect how quickly the stomatal pores open and close as they respond to changing environments out in the field,” explained Dr Lawson, from the School of Biological Sciences.

The second phase of the project will explore photosynthesis in the ears of wheat. This is an emerging area in this field of research as it can be problematic to measure. However, at Essex we have particular expertise in chlorophyll fluorescence imaging that allows us to non-invasively measure photosynthesis in these structures. This builds on the pioneering work of Professor Neil Baker who led the development of these techniques at Essex, which are now used around the world.

“The challenge of feeding the world’s ever-growing population is a real issue we want to help tackle at Essex,” added Dr Lawson. “With our research having direct links with industry we can have a real impact on producing the next generation of higher-yield wheat varieties. Our expertise and unique instrumentation at Essex is attractive to industrial partners which has led to this exciting collaboration.”

This research project builds on two other projects at Essex, one led by Professor Raines and one led by Dr Tracy Lawson at Essex in collaboration with Nottingham University, which are being funded by the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP), which aims to raise the yield potential of wheat by up to 50% over the coming 20 years.

■ Dr Lawson is also working with Professor Peter Nixon at Imperial College London on a research project looking at the mechanics of photosynthesis and how plants cope with dynamic light environments. This research could help produce wheat crops for the future which can cope with climate change and less fertile environments.

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