Image: Wheat
Zvi Peleg / Assaf Distelfeld
Wild emmer wheat grows in its natural habitat north of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. The wild variety was crossed with cultivated varieties to enhance the grain's nutrition without changing the taste or resorting to controversial genetic engineering.
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updated 11/24/2006 2:13:38 AM ET 2006-11-24T07:13:38

Scientists have found a way to boost the protein, zinc and iron content in wheat, an achievement that could help bring more nutritious food to many millions of people worldwide.

A team led by University of California at Davis researcher Jorge Dubcovsky identified a gene in wild wheat that raises the grain's nutritional content. The gene became nonfunctional for unknown reasons during humankind's domestication of wheat.

Writing in the journal Science on Thursday, the researchers said they used conventional breeding methods to bring the gene into cultivated wheat varieties, enhancing the protein, zinc and iron value in the grain. The wild plant involved is known as wild emmer wheat, an ancestor of some cultivated wheat.

Wheat represents one of the major crops feeding people worldwide, providing about 20 percent of all calories consumed. The World Health Organization has said upward of 2 billion people get too little zinc and iron in their diet, and more than 160 million children under age 5 lack adequate protein.

"We really can produce wheat with more protein and more zinc and iron," Dubcovsky said in an interview. "So if that is grown in a developing country or is used as food aid, it will really provide more of those needed things in places where it's necessary."

The team included scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Haifa in Israel.

More nutrition with same taste
In making the wheat more nutritious, the researchers did not change how it tastes, Dubcovsky said. "We're not changing the composition or anything very dramatic in the grain," he said.

"I don't think a simple step like this will solve hunger in the world. I'm not that naive. But I think it's heading in the right direction," Dubcovsky said.

The gene made the grain mature more quickly while also boosting its protein and micronutrient content by 10 to 15 percent in the pasta and bread wheat varieties with which the researchers worked.

"What this gene does is it uses better what is in the plant already, so rather than leave the protein and the zinc and iron in the straw, we've moved a little bit more into the grain," Dubcovsky said.

No genetic modification
Annual wheat production is estimated at 620 million tons of grain worldwide.

The wheat varieties bred by the scientists are not genetically modified, which could help them become accepted commercially, they said.

"We didn't do it by genetic modification. The normal wheat crosses perfectly well with the wild wheat. So we just crossed it after normal breeding," Dubcovsky said.

Dubcovsky heads a consortium of 20 public wheat-breeding programs called the Wheat Coordinated Agricultural Project.

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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