A genetic driver that improves wheat yield traits could also lift protein content by as much as 25 per cent, according to a recent discovery.
Scientists from the University of Adelaide and the United Kingdom-based John Innes Centre had identified the mechanism they say could result in higher quality wheat varieties.
University of Adelaide's Scott Boden, School of Agriculture, Food and Wine, led the research, saying little was known about the mechanism behind drivers of yield and protein content in wheat production.
"Discovering a gene that controls these two factors has the potential to help generate new wheat varieties that produce higher quality grain," he said.
"As wheat accounts for nearly 20pc of protein consumed worldwide, the impact of this research can significantly benefit society by providing grains with a higher protein content, which could therefore help produce more nutritious food, such as bread and breakfast cereals."
The work is the first known example where a forward-genetics screen of a mutant population has been used to identify a gene that controls reproductive development in wheat and insights from this research has the potential to help improve the nutritional and economic value of wheat.
"The genetic variation we identified provides a 15-25pc increase in protein content for plants grown in the field," Dr Boden said.
"These varieties also produce extra spikelets, known as paired spikelets.
"We have not yet detected an increase in yield with the extra spikelets, but we hope a yield increase might come in elite varieties grown by farmers."
Dr Boden said the positive was this spike in protein came without the trade-off of a reduced yield.
"This discovery has even better potential to provide economic benefit to breeders and growers than just the increased nutritional value by itself," he said.
"Aside from the important outcome of this work for the future of wheat breeding, the research itself is of immense value to the scientific community as it provides an elegant example of new capabilities that are available to wheat research."
The team expects new wheat varieties will be available to breeders in two to three years' time, which could then translate to benefits for farmers in seven to 10 years.
The team's findings were published in the journal Science Advances.
This project was funded by the Royal Society (UK), the Biological and Biotechnology Sciences Research Council (UK), the Australian Research Council, the South Australian Grain Industry Trust and the University of Adelaide's Waite Research Institute.
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