New research by Indian scientist claims wheat yields can be raised by 50%

A non-toxic chemical intervention induces wheat plants to produce more starch, shows findings published in Nature


The technology can be a respite for India where wheat production took a hit in 2015 and 2016 due to widespread drought and imports surged to the highest seen in a decade. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
The technology can be a respite for India where wheat production took a hit in 2015 and 2016 due to widespread drought and imports surged to the highest seen in a decade. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

New Delhi: In a year when India was forced to import over five million tonnes of wheat due to a production shortfall at home, new research by an Indian scientist offers hope that wheat yields could be raised significantly by a chemical intervention in existing varieties.

A water-soluble white powder—similar to Trehalose-6-Phosphate (T6P), a central sugar signal in wheat plants—can enhance levels of starch and biomass produced by the plants, the research shows.

The findings of the collaborative research project of Oxford University with Ram Sagar Misra, a chemistry professor at Shiv Nadar University (SNU), India, was published in Nature journal in December 2016. Apart from Misra, the research team includes Benjamin Davis, a professor at the University of Oxford, and Matthew Paul, a scientist from Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, UK.

“The technology is completely new where we use a sugar-based signalling molecule which leads wheat plants to produce more starch, thereby leading to a 50% rise in yields (in lab and field trials),” Misra said during an interview at his SNU office.

The water-soluble power can either be used as a nutrient solution to the root zone of plants or even sprayed, he said, adding, “The same technology has potential applications in other starch-based crops like maize, rice and potatoes.”

Not just raising yields, the technology can also offer solutions to counter effects of moisture stress and drought.

According to the paper published in Nature, the research shows “that chemical intervention in a potent sugar signal increases grain yield, whereas application to vegetative tissue improves recovery and resurrection from drought”.

Also Read | India seen importing 2-3 million tonnes of wheat in 2017/18: Report

The technology can be a respite for India where wheat production took a hit in 2015 and 2016 due to widespread drought and imports surged to the highest seen in a decade. India is likely to harvest a record 96.6 million tonnes beginning April this year, but a warmer winter may shave off some of the gains of a normal monsoon last year.

The discovery is significant too as average wheat yield in India is below that of average yields seen in countries like China, leaving significant room for improvement.

“In a country like India with significant resistance to genetically modified crops, the technology will be more acceptable, and also because it is non-toxic and environment friendly,” Misra added.

The collaborative research which took close to a decade to develop could take some more time before it reaches farmers. “We are now looking to collaborate with agriculture companies to conduct extensive field trails and a handful of Indian and Israeli companies have expressed interest,” Misra said.

“This technology can be easily and widely replicated across other crops as well—so potential benefits are enormous,” said A.D.N. Bajpai, Vice-Chancellor, Himachal Pradesh University, Shimla.

“It can co-exist and be integrated with existing crop technologies, without any ethical or safety issues. The only question now is how soon can this be brought to the market,” Bajpai added.

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