Mutation Breeding Increases Climate Change Resilience in Wheat

For her PhD research into Plant Breeding, Dr Boluwatife OlaOlorun, who arrived at UKZN from Nigeria in July 2017, focused on inducing genetic variation in wheat, using mutation breeding to harness the traits of drought tolerance and carbon sequestration.

OlaOlorun’s work forms part of an extended project by students within UKZN’s African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) to breed climate smart wheat with a bigger root mass.

Her work was supervised by Professor Hussein Shimelis and Professor Mark Laing.

The long-term goal is to develop wheat cultivars that have bigger root systems and are better able to withstand drought and sequestrate atmospheric carbon in the soil, thereby helping to mitigate the effect of climate change.

In plant breeding, the preoccupation with increasing yield has meant that the size of root mass has decreased in many varieties. Now, that trend is being reversed to increase crop resilience to climate change through yield gains, drought tolerance and carbon sequestration.

OlaOlorun got involved in plant breeding by accident when her desire to study veterinary medicine was thwarted by lack of access. She started studying plant breeding, intending to change, but got interested and carried on. ‘I felt there was a niche as plant breeding was a silent field in agriculture. Not many people – and very few women – were going into it,’ she said.

Her PhD focus has been on working with chemical mutagenesis using Ethyl methanesulfonate (EMS) to create genetic variability in wheat genotypes. The aim of her research is to develop early generation wheat mutants for drought tolerance and improved biomass allocation – ie produce bigger roots and better root-to-shoot allocation.

‘Chemical mutagenesis is a fast way to create genetic variability when compared to hybridisation. It’s done in the lab, where a chemical causes a change in DNA sequence after seed mutagenesis treatment,’ she explained.

This is done using protocols including varying temperatures, times and doses of EMS to identify optimal conditions.

OlaOlorun started her preliminary research by choosing three genotypes that had potential for drought tolerance.

‘The focus was on optimising EMS treatment conditions (temperature, dose concentration and time of exposure) in three different wheat genotypes with a particular treatment condition for each genotype,’ she said. This produced 81 different combinations that she planted to see what worked best.

‘After the chemical application, I could see promising seedlings at an early stage. Seedlings from treatment conditions which gave 50% germination and vigour were considered ideal. Once promising seedlings had been selected I went back to the lab and exposed a large number of seeds to those conditions.’

An optimal treatment for each of the three genotypes was determined and the 2 500 seeds produced for each treatment were then planted and exposed to different conditions in the field and the greenhouse.

OlaOlorun targeted to get to the fourth generation so she had to plan to produce two generations per year. The first generation was planted in March 2018 and harvested after six months while the fourth generation was harvested recently.

‘With the first generation, the plants looked the same with no abnormalities. However, in the second generation I began to see variations in both quantitative and qualitative traits and segregation patterns, with some plants looking promising. Based on their physical appearance, I selected seeds from 180 healthy and normal-looking plants as well as those with high yield-related traits,’ she said.

The third and fourth generation seeds were planted in controlled and field conditions and fourth generation plants were analysed to determine high root and shoot biomass after being subjected to drought and non-drought conditions.

‘The end goal of my research was to recommend a certain number of individual mutants that have been improved for drought tolerance and biomass allocation,’ said OlaOlorun.

Words: Shelagh McLoughlin

Photograph: Supplied