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Wheat Gene May Boost Foods' Nutrient Content

News Release

Jennifer Martin, CSREES Staff, (202) 720-8188

WASHINGTON, Nov. 24, 2006 – Funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the United States – Israel Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund has enabled researchers at the University of California - Davis and the University of Haifa in Israel to clone a gene from wild wheat that increases the protein, zinc and iron content in the grain. The cloned gene offers a potential solution to nutritional deficiencies affecting hundreds of millions of children around the world.

“As a major crop across the globe, providing 20 percent of all calories consumed by humans, any improvement in the nutritional value of wheat would have substantial health benefits for much of the world’s population,” said Gale Buchanan, USDA under secretary for Research, Education and Economics.

Jorge Dubcovsky at UC Davis and Dr. Tzion Fahima at the University of Haifa designated the cloned gene GPC-B1 for its effect on grain protein content. GPC-B1 accelerates grain maturity and increases grain protein and micronutrient content by 10 to 15 percent in the wheat varieties studied so far.

To prove that all these effects were produced by this gene, the researchers created genetically modified wheat lines with reduced levels of the GPC gene. These lines were developed by Dr. Ann E. Blechl of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Albany, Calif. The grains from the genetically modified plants matured several weeks later than the control plants and showed 30 percent less grain protein, zinc and iron, confirming that the GPC gene was responsible for the changes.

The researchers also found that all commercial pasta and bread wheat varieties analyzed so far have a nonfunctional copy of the GPC gene, suggesting the gene was lost during the domestication of wheat. Reintroducing the functional gene into commercial wheat varieties could increase their nutritional value.

The project received partial funding from the USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service’s National Research Initiative (NRI). The NRI is the largest peer reviewed, competitive grants program in CSREES. It supports research, education and extension grants that address key problems of national, regional and multi-state importance in sustaining all components of agriculture. Results from the study will be reported in the November 24, 2006, issue of the journal Science.

CSREES advances knowledge for agriculture, the environment, human health and well-being, and communities by supporting research, education, and extension programs in the Land-Grant University System and other partner organizations. For more information, visit http://www.csrees.usda.gov.