On the road towards the perfectly climate adapted wheat

Increasing levels of CO2, drought and higher temperatures: Our crops are facing harder and harder challenges due to the climate changes. One of the countries, which takes a hard hit from this, is Pakistan: “It is around 40 percent of Pakistan, which is under severe drought”, Sajid Shokat says. He is from Pakistan and is currently working as a PhD-student at University of Copenhagen.

Sajid Shokat has made it his life’s work to grow climate-adapted wheat. In Pakistan, he worked for around eight years with hybridization and induced mutations in wheat breeding, and now he has brought his knowledge to University of Copenhagen, where he is doing his PhD project on how to adapt wheat to higher temperatures, drought and more CO2. I am visiting Sajid Shokat at the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences in Taastrup where he is doing several experiments on wheat in the greenhouses.

Entering the greenhouse funny lightning of purple, yellow and green fills the moisty air. The greenhouse is divided into several smaller greenhouse-“rooms” and Sajid Shokat stops before one of the purple ones on our right side.

“In this chamber we provided normal growing conditions,” he says and continues pointing to two groups of wheat “This genotype and this genotype performed the best and worst in the field and they originated from the same cross”.

Looking at the two groups of wheat, the group performing the best in the field definitely looks fresher and greener in comparison to other groups of wheat sitting across the table, looking a little sad and dry. “They have the same parents – everything the same except for heat tolerance. That may be due to the hidden genetics of this plant,” Sajid Shokat explains.

The discovery of a new gene and the impact of heat
Sajid Shokat’s wheat is sitting side by side with other plants in the other greenhouse-“rooms”. Some of the plants are placed there by his colleagues, who like him are part of the research group “Crop Stress Physiology under the leadership of Associate Professor, Fulai Liu. The group examines the physiological and biochemical regulation of growth and functioning of crop plants not only when subjected to drought, heat and CO2 like Sajid is doing but also different kinds of stresses such as diseases, insects and different lightning.

Among the group’s achievements, which Sajid Shokat contributed to, is the discovery of a new gene within wheat (read and download the Nature-article on the discovery of the new gene here). The gene has an impact on how heat-tolerant the wheat is and Sajid Shokat is one of the first researchers to investigate the impact of variations within this gene through experiments.

Looking at the results so far, Sajid Shokat did two experiments in the field in Mexico in collaboration with University of Copenhagen and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico (CIMMYT): One in 2016 and one in 2018. Here, he discovered how a two degrees rise in the temperature could affect the amount of grain yield. In 2016, there was drought conditions and crops got around 60 percent less water than normal. Moreover, the temperature during the night was two degrees higher than normal. In 2018, the temperature was normal but again, the crops only got 60 percent less water. Looking at the results, there was a 40 percent decrease in the yield of wheat in 2016 compared to the wheat in 2018.

“You can imagine that if there is both drought and heat, how much the reduction will be,” Sajid Shokat says. He believes climate changes impact on our food supply is the “biggest threat to the world food security”. He hopes to help abet this problem and has already bred wheat types showing such potential.

“There are lot of good promising genotypes (…) one type is giving maybe 5-ton yield (per ha) and under drought stress conditions it is giving maybe 4-ton yield,” Sajid Shokat says.

These results and everything else he has learned through his PhD at University of Copenhagen, Sajid Shokat will take with him to his Pakistani workplace: the Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology, which also offers PhDs and master degrees:

“There are a lot of Pakistani students interested in this subject but they may not have the chance to go to developed countries and work there. Whatever I learn here, they have the possibility to learn from me, and then they can also help solve the problems of the farmers,” Sajid Shokat says.

He will return to Pakistan in 2020, when he finishes his PhD in Copenhagen.

This article was produced in collaboration between UCPH SCIENCE and DDRN.