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A short history of durum wheat breeding

As private companies step up cereal breeding investments, 
Andrea Hilderman reviews our public breeding triumphs

Dr. Ron DePauw has been actively involved in the breeding program at the Semiarid Prairie Agricultural Research Centre (SPARC) in Swift Current, Saskatchewan for many decades. Over the years DePauw has led diverse teams that have made extraordinary leaps forward in the agronomic and end-use qualities of durum for Western Canada.

Durum team leaders have been E.A. Hurd, T.F. Townley-Smith, J.M. Clarke, and A.K. Singh. “I am always the first to say that it is not me that breeds these varieties,” says DePauw. “Really there is a team of scientists and technicians that essentially carries out the scientific equivalent of grunt work behind the scenes. I may be the team leader, but the glory needs to be spread wide in any successful breeding program.”

One example of the “grunt work” DePauw refers to is the use of Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIR) in all SPARC breeding programs. SPARC received its first NIR instrument in the mid-80’s. Once researchers understood how to reliably measure protein in a non-destructive way and incorporate that testing into the durum breeding program, the team was able to shift the negative relationship between yield and protein. This contributed to the development of AC Avonlea in 1997 and Strongfield in 2003 — both of which became predominant varieties.

man standing in a field

Dr. Ron DePauw, research scientist, team leader, AAFC Swift Current.
photo: SPARC, AAFC

The NIR technology was extended to enable selecting for grain pigment content. Based on European codex alimentarious requirements (food standards) for low grain cadmium content, Dr. John Clarke led a team to develop the basic understanding of cadmium uptake, methods to measure genetic variation, and molecular tools to select for low cadmium uptake. (Cadmium can be found naturally in soil, but is harmful to humans and animals if consumed in quantity. Durum tends to accumulate more cadmium than other cereal crops.)

Strongfield was the first fruit of that extraordinary science grunt work by many people from many disciplines.

The expertise that a breeding program needs includes agronomy, human nutrition, biotechnology, bioprocessing, entomology, pathology, food processing, microbiology, quality and statistics. “Funding is also a critical component of what we do,” says DePauw. “Without the support of farmers through the Western Grains Research Foundation which we use to attract additional matching funds we would certainly not be where we are today in the enhancement of wheat genetics.”

Durum wheat markets

Durum wheat is used as food all over the world, but historically in the Mediterranean basin, which includes Italy and North Africa. Durum is processed into semolina that is then made into pasta and couscous. Canada is the largest producer of durum, growing five to six million acres annually and is the largest exporter of durum in the world with over 50 per cent of market share in any given year.

Durum is a very important crop for farmers in Western Canada, coming in fourth behind spring wheat, canola and barley. It has received considerable attention and funding to ensure new address ongoing issues that hold back production potential and the desires of end-users when it comes to quality.

The objectives of the SPARC durum program include:

  • Developing durum varieties with five per cent greater yield than Strongfield with good grain protein.
  • Developing solid stemmed (wheat stem sawfly resistant) varieties with grain yield equal to Strongfield.
  • Developing durum varieties with 2.5 per cent greater yield than Strongfield and improved leaf spot and pre-harvest sprouting tolerance.
  • Developing durum varieties with improved wheat orange blossom midge and fusarium resistance.
  • Developing strong gluten varieties similar to Commander for the western prairies under irrigation with five per cent greater yield than Strongfield.
  • All durum varieties developed need to have low grain cadmium concentration.

Together, these objectives will increase farm incomes by delivering varieties with superior and/or improved packages of agronomic, disease and quality characteristics.

To meet these objectives, SPARC researchers evaluate performance traits, grain soundness and quality, disease and insect resistance, root traits and genetics suitable for agronomic management systems while all the time breeding for adaptation to varied climatic conditions. In addition to using the best field plot techniques, the SPARC team uses genomic tools for continued progress for variety development and continues to quickly adapt new technology as it becomes available to ensure quicker pace of progress.

man standing in a wheat field while talking on a microphone

Dr. A. K. (Danny) Singh, former durum breeder at AAFC Swift Current, enjoyed explaining his research to farmers at field days. Dr. Singh moved to Iowa State University in 2013.
photo: Leeann Minogue

Durum developments

Looking back on the durum breeding program at SPARC, DePauw highlighted some of the greatest leaps forward.

With the release of the sister lines Wascana in 1971 and Wakooma in 1973, farmers experienced a major shift in the quality of the durum they were producing. Wascana brought higher pigment and Wakooma brought stronger gluten. In a blend, these two varieties set a whole new bar of productivity for farmers and soon they jointly were grown on over 70 per cent of durum acres into the mid-to-late 80’s.

“Kyle was the next big jump forward,” says DePauw. “It combined the best features of Wascana and Wakooma with improved standability and good grade protection, something that was a major deficiency in most other new varieties up until that point.”

Kyle was released in 1984. After that, changes occurred in pasta processing that led to the adoption of high temperature drying. “Then we were challenged with developing a variety with higher protein and higher pigment than Kyle, with gluten strength equal to Kyle to meet the needs of pasta manufacturers.”

AC Avonlea was released in 1997 to deliver on those requirements as well as delivering greater yield and standability.

Strongfield was released in 2003 with higher protein and pigment, better strength, a great agronomic package and low grain cadmium. According to the last Canadian Wheat Board variety survey conducted in 2011 Strongfield dominated durum acres.

“A sub-text to all that development was the desire to have something with much stronger gluten in the portfolio than conventional durum,” says DePauw. Next, SPARC developed AC Navigator, which found a niche for its exceptional pigment, as well as AC Pathfinder which had greater strength.

Coming soon

Big improvements continue to explode out of the SPARC program. Brigade (2008) is high yielding, has good standability and maybe a little lower protein. Transcend (2010) shows very good productivity and standability.

AAC Raymore (2012) is the first registered solid stemmed durum (sawfly resistant). SeCan has the distribution rights for this variety — it will be available in Spring 2015. DT833 (2013) (now named AAC Marchwell VB) contains the Sm1 gene for orange wheat blossom midge tolerance. This variety, renamed AAC Marchwell VB, will also be distributed by SeCan. It should be available in 2016.

The team is working now on stacking those genes for full on-board protection against sawfly and midge. Extensive efforts are on-going to develop improve fusarium tolerant durum varieties, however, sustained financial investments are required to overcome this challenging disease. Durum varieties with resistance to ergot may soon be available to farmers as a result of work at SPARC.

The durum breeding program at SPARC has been very active in training younger professionals that have continued to work on breeding improved varieties. These include young women in agriculture research. One such early career scientist, Dr. Arti Singh, has won the prestigious Jeannie Borlaug Laube 2013 Women in Triticum award.

Over the last couple of years, various breeding programs operated by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) have seen changes as a result of budget cuts and reductions There have also been significant retirements (such as Dr. Doug Brown at the Cereal Research Centre in Winnipeg who led the CPS Red high yielding wheat program there) and resignations. Dr. A.K. Singh (Danny), who formerly ran the durum program at SPARC, has moved on to Iowa State University. Dr. Stephen Fox formerly ran AAFC’s spring wheat program in Winnipeg, but has now moved on to work for DL Seeds.

DePauw believes the future of SPARC is strong. “Our research station is seeing significant investments in facility upgrades and rejuvenation.” The formation of the Canadian Wheat Alliance based on a partnership of AAFC, NRC, University of Saskatchewan, and the Province of Saskatchewan has several new projects to underpin the genetics of heat and drought stress and some of the major diseases of durum wheat. Prairie farmers can look forward to further significant developments from the Swift Current durum breeding program.

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