An Israeli plant biologist has discovered a way to protect cultivated wheat from insects without pesticides.
Prof. Vered Tzin of the Ben Gurion University of the Negev has discovered two defense mechanisms of wild wheat against pests that she hopes to reproduce in cultivated wheat.
Wild wheat has a coating of “hairs” that prevent insects from burrowing into their stalks. It also produces a poison – benzoxazinoids (BXDs) – that discourages bugs from eating it.
Cultivated wheat has lost many of its protective mechanisms, which allows insects to destroy a lot of the yield. Luckily, they can be bred back into cultivated wheat and improve pest resistance without relying on pesticides that do not work that well.
PhD student Zhaniya Batyrshina is the first to have isolated the gene that controls the production of this poison.
“Wheat is an essential staple for so many and we must do all we can to safeguard this critical crop from loss by insects and disease,” says Prof. Tzin.
One of the most serious threats to it are aphids, tiny insects which suck out the its nutrients and also introduce deadly plant disease. There are about 5,000 different species of aphids all over the world.
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They cause significant losses in yield, and the gradual increase in global temperatures has increased their reproduction rate.
“Now that we know which gene controls its production, we can generate improved cultivated wheat with the same self defense capabilities,” says Prof. Tzin.
Prof. Tzin studied the wild emmer wheat which has long been found in the Fertile Crescent and is an ‘ancestor’ of both durum (pasta) and bread wheat.
Wheat provides 20 per cent of the world population’s caloric and human protein intake, and is essential for both human and livestock diets, which makes these findings significant.