College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Wheat Breeding Leads to Drought Tolerance

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Dr Zamalotshwa Thungo is the proud holder of a PhD in Crop Science gained through UKZN’s African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) for research she did into developing new varieties of drought-tolerant wheat that possess quality traits desirable for breeding.

Successful in developing new wheat populations, Thungo’s work earned her various scholarships throughout her studies and resulted in several of her papers being published.

Based on the Pietermaritzburg campus, where she completed her BSc in Agribusiness and her MSc in Agriculture in Crop Science, she worked to identify and select genetically divergent heat and drought tolerant wheat genotypes possessing yield-promoting agronomic, physiological and quality traits for breeding.

Thungo received scholarships from the National Research Foundation and the Winter Cereals Trust to pursue her research, which resulted in the development and selection of 15 novel crosses of wheat that incorporated high grain yield and quality which are recommended for further advancement and cultivar development.

The research, said Thungo, equipped her with critical pre-breeding skills needed for cultivar development. Field trials took place to select heat and drought tolerant genotypes while laboratory analyses helped select genotypes with high grain quality, and DNA fingerprinting to identify genetically divergent genotypes. She crossed parental genotypes identified with high yield and quality to develop new progenies, and tested the progeny to investigate gene action influencing transfer of superior traits between parents and progenies.

‘I discovered that, among other reasons, the low adoption rate of new varieties is responsible for low production gains for grain yield and quality in wheat,’ she said.

Remarking that genetic gains in grain yield and quality in wheat are inversely related, Thungo hopes the novel breeding families of wheat she developed that incorporate both high grain yield and quality attributes, increase genetic gains in both grain yield and quality.

With experience in crop science and soil science from her undergraduate and master’s studies, Thungo was keen to expand her expertise in Agronomy and so elected to pursue research in plant breeding to enhance her research profile. Pursuing a PhD was challenging from a time management point of view as she had to juggle her time between office and fieldwork, cope with many late nights in the laboratory and early mornings in the field, and meet and beat the challenge of balancing family time and commitments with her studies.  Thungo persevered to meet and master all the demands.

An aspirant academic, Thungo hopes to expand her experience through postdoctoral research and lecturing or get experience as a research scientist in the government or private sector.

Thungo thanked several people for their support during her studies, including her sister Ms Nkosingiphile Rose Thungo who bought Thungo a new car after hers was involved in an accident, enabling her to travel between campus and home. She also thanked Dr Jacob Mashilo for editing manuscripts and assisting her to get five papers published, with another two manuscripts under submission. She paid tribute to her supervisors Professor Hussein Shimelis and Dr Alfred Odindo and to the ACCI for being a reliable and vibrant association to support postgraduate plant breeding research, and praised God for seeing her through her PhD.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied