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FOCUS ON INDIA
JUNE AUGUST 2011 PARTNERS
FAMILIARITY BREEDS BETTER WHEAT
Active within the Indo--Australian wheat-
breeding research network is Dr Howard
Eagles of the University of Adelaide. Dr Eagles'
familiarity with the pedigree and provenance
of important wheat traits is so extensive that
it advances molecular genetics, bioinformatics
and commercial breeding.
He has recently finished work on an ACIAR
project that provided Indian breeders with
Australian germplasm and DNA markers to
develop biscuit-quality wheat varieties. India is the
second-largest biscuit-consuming country in the
world (after the US), but relies on enzyme-treating
flour from chapati wheat to make biscuits.
"The intertwining of Australia's gene pool
with India's has an interesting history," Dr Eagles
says. "It was legendary Australian wheat breeder
William Farrer who first acquired Indian wheats
and corresponded with Indian breeders."
The parentage of Federation wheat
unequivocally includes an Indian landrace,
'Etawah', named after a district in the state of
Uttar Pradesh. Genes originating from Etawah
are now thought to have contributed a lot of
stress tolerance to Farrer's wheat varieties.
"Federation basically created the current
Australian wheatbelt because it could grow
inland in dry areas," Dr Eagles says. "Farrer
essentially figured out Mendelian inheritance
and in 1895, during a tremendous drought,
he spotted and selected a few lines from
his crosses with Indian, Italian and Canadian
wheats that coped a fair bit better. That was the
start of Federation."
With a long history of growing wheat in low-
rainfall seasons, Australia has kept up Farrer's
legacy and possesses some of the world's best
scientists when it comes to providing wheat
with the means to yield in hot, dry conditions.
Prime among them are the CSIRO Plant
Industry team headed by Dr Richard Richards.
In 2009, Dr Richards' team decided to join the
Indo--Australian Program on Marker-Assisted
Wheat Breeding and the development of their
latest suite of water-productivity traits is now
partially funded by ACIAR. Heading the ACIAR-
related activities is Dr Michelle Watt.
"CSIRO's philosophy is that to improve
productivity in water-limited conditions is to
essentially adapt the architecture of the wheat
plant---the shoots and roots---to better scavenge
and make use of available water," Dr Watt says.
"In significant zones of both Australia and
India, wheat has to rely heavily on moisture
stored in the soil for growth, supplemented
only by low rainfall in Australia and limited
irrigation from unsustainable groundwater
sources in India."
The CSIRO team has made its most
advanced wheat lines available to India as part
of a germplasm exchange with breeders at
the Directorate of Wheat Research, the Indian
Agricultural Research Institute and the Agharkar
In a departure from past funding
arrangements, the Indian partners do not receive
ACIAR funds but are independently supported
by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.
ADAPTING TO HOTTER, DRIER CLIMATES
The CSIRO wheats are unique, the product of
assimilating years of experience on how best
to improve wheat yields in water-constrained
Dr Watt says the CSIRO wheats have been
field-tested in Australia and are especially
advantageous in no-till farming systems where
stubble from the previous crop is retained
to increase water infiltration to the soil and
improve soil structure.
In exchange, CSIRO has received a package
of 40 Indian wheat lines, selected for their
standout performance in dry areas. Among
that material is 'Lok1', a variety developed by an
Indian philanthropic organisation.
"Lok1 was first released in the 1970s but
is still grown by Indian farmers because it
performs so well in the really dry central and
peninsular areas," Dr Watt says. "We suspect
there might be something special about
its roots and we look forward to examining
what makes this line perform well with little
water. That's just one of the lines the Indian
researchers provided for the project."
All the wheat lines are due to be assessed
for water productivity side-by-side in India and
MORE PRODUCTIVE FARMING
Agricultural scientists such as Dr Watt realise
that yield gains are not achieved through
genetics alone. In Australia over the past
30 years, 70% of wheat yield gains have been
attributed to advances in agronomy. Prime
among the beneficial new farming techniques
are stubble retention and reduced tillage,
techniques that fall under the umbrella of
"We do have in mind that the CSIRO wheats
are advantageous in no-till, stubble-retained
farming systems," Dr Watt says. "Our research
showed that was the case in Australia. So it is
very likely that we might try to combine water-
conserving agriculture with this germplasm in
2012 within the Indian trials."
Conservation farming replaces stubble
burning and ploughing, which tend to damage
soil structure and aggravate loss of soil moisture
and fertility. In India, however, existing farming
Dr Michelle Watt
PHOTO: BRAD COLLIS
Dr Paul Fox
PHOTO: EVAN COLLIS
Dr Howard Eagles
PHOTO: FELICITY PRITCHARD
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