Wheat breeding

One of my favorite interviews in Unnaturally Delicious was with Brett Carver, who is a fellow professor at Oklahoma State.  Carver is a wheat breeder.  He took me out to some fields I drive past every day.

Carver took me out to the middle of an unusual-looking wheat field. The feeling of awe and beauty that comes when you look out at amber waves of grain arises, in part, from the many acting as one: each stalk and head of grain is about the same height and size, and the group moves in unison with the wind. But this wasn’t that type of field. Carver’s field looked a bit like
a bad hair day. It was chaotic. Some stalks of wheat were almost up to my waist, others were only a bit taller than ankle height. Some stalks were golden yellow, others were darker brown. Some spikes scrawny, others fat. Long bristles protruded from most of the plants’ heads, but some had no bristles. Carver’s goal is to create a new wheat variety.


Standing in the middle of the proverbial haystack he planted, Carver said, “There are sixty-six thousand different strains out here. I’ll pick one of them, and it will ultimately be grown on millions of acres. It’s a big responsibility.” Carver developed all the top four varieties of wheat planted in the state of Oklahoma——Duster, Endurance, Gallagher, and Ruby Lee— where farmers planted more than five million acres of wheat in 2015.

One of the most fascinating lessons I learned was about the history of wheat.

Even though wheat has been around since the dawn of civilization, it is actually a product of biotechnology. But, as Carver said, “Man didn’t do it. . . . God did it or nature did it, but it wasn’t man.” He added, “If I tried to do this today, I’d be labeled a mad scientist who’s creating some sort of evil genetically modified food.”

The history of wheat can be found in its DNA. Unlike humans, wheat does not have one father and mother but three fathers and three mothers. Rather than a single pairing of genes, which is what occurs in humans (a diploid), wheat has three sets of chromosomes, and each set exists as a pair—something called a hexaploid. This somewhat strange state of affairs came about when one species mated with another, and then it happened yet again. Carver explained that about 300,000 years ago one grassy weed species crossed with another—a spiky, unruly-looking plant that eventually led to the plant we call emmer. Then, about ten thousand years ago, this crossbreed mated yet again, with another grassy species, one of the many goatgrasses. The result is our modern wheat used for making bread . . . All this makes Carver’s job more complex. Whereas humans have an estimated twenty-to twenty-five thousand genes, wheat has 164,000 to 334,000 genes.