By TIM ALEXANDER
PEORIA, Ill. — Researchers and scientists at the Peoria USDA Ag Lab are working to accelerate development of cereal cultivars that are nutritious, disease resistant and resilient to climate change. During a May 2 showcase of emerging research at the Ag Lab — officially known as the United States Department of Agriculture — Agricultural Research Service (ARS) National Center for Agricultural Utilization and Research (NCAUR) — scientists explained how they are developing technologies to mitigate billion-dollar annual losses from reduced yields and mycotoxin contamination of grain caused by Fusarium head blight (FHB), a fungal disease of small grain cereals affecting wheat, barley, oats, rye and corn.
“We are specifically working to improve climate resilient wheat, and the effects of rising Co2 on nutrition and disease susceptibility,” said Will Hay, a research scientist for NCAUR’s mycotoxin prevention and applied microbiology unit. “As part of the mycotoxin prevention unit, one of the chief diseases that we are trying to reduce and prevent damages from is Fusarium head blight. It is insidious in that it also delivers mycotoxins, which are secondary metabolites, into the grain. Along with reduced yields, whatever grain you are harvesting is infected with mycotoxins that cannot be destroyed during typical food processing.”
Researchers at NCAUR are studying whether pathogens are on the increase due to rising Co2 levels and higher temperatures associated with climate change. To that end, ground will soon be broken on the NCAUR campus for a climate controlled, 3,000 square-foot containment greenhouse and 800 square-foot headhouse with planting area and autoclave committed to improving wheat’s climate resilience and sustainability. It’s all in an effort to enhance the competitiveness of U.S. agriculture, Hay explained.
“Rising Co2 is a concern of ours because it could significantly change not only plant growth, behavior and yield, but also the nutritional composition of the plant. This can cause an overall shift in carbohydrate composition,” Hay said. “What we are looking at is how this can cause damage in crops including wheat. We’re looking at changes in temperature and Co2 and we’re seeing trans-specific and host-specific responses, but what we’re seeing most overall is an increase in non-production with the mycotoxin from Fusarium head blight and increased levels of Co2.”
USDA researchers have discovered that proteins and mineral nutrients in wheat could suffer deficiencies due to increased Co2 levels. The problem places Hay and other USDA researchers in charge of protecting the global value of the U.S wheat market, which has declined over the past two decades due to the European Union and Russia’s rise in prominence. In 2016 U.S. farmers produced over 2.3 million bushels of wheat; that number had fallen to just over 1.6 million bushels by 2022.
USDA has identified FHB or “scab” of wheat and barley as the plant disease with arguably the greatest impact on U.S. agriculture and society. The disease, caused by the fungal pathogen Fusarium graminearum, caused an estimated $2.6 billion dollar loss to US agriculture during epidemics in the 1990s. Outbreaks have also been reported in Asia, Canada, Europe and South America. Infested cereal crops show significant reduction in seed quality and yield due to discolored, shriveled “tombstone” kernels. Secondly, scabby grain is often contaminated with trichothecene and estrogenic mycotoxins, making it unsuitable for food or feed, according to researchers.
The Peoria Ag Lab is currently conducting their wheat research using growing chambers. The new greenhouse complex, projected to be completed by 2025, will rapidly expand scientists’ ability to conduct research on various varieties of wheat. To date, they have discovered that protein loss to susceptible wheat varieties due to elevated Co2 conditions can result in up to 30 percent loss of iron content in grain.
“In general we are seeing far less nutritious grain with elevated Co2,” said Hay. “There is increased lodging risk and reduced nutrition in the grain.” Due to these findings, NCAUR is partnering with the University of Minnesota and other research partners to develop climate resilient wheat varieties that can better defend against the effects of FHB.
“With the new controlled environment greenhouse we’re going to have 10 to 20 times the growing space to work with more wheat breeders, more stakeholders and look at different pathogens to expand our ability to identify problems and solutions with the ultimate goal of safe, abundant and nutritious wheat,” Hay said.
Along with the ability to rapidly detect and respond to emerging pathogens, researchers hope to gain more insight into combating insect pests in wheat once the new greenhouse is up and running, according to Hay.
When announced in 2021, the cost of the greenhouse was estimated at $4.5 million. Funding was approved in part thanks to a bipartisan effort on behalf of Illinois legislators, according to a Peoria Journal Star newspaper report. The greenhouse will help drive research into ways to “improve the climate resilience and sustainability of food and energy production, foster new economic opportunities for rural communities and biomanufacturing industries, and enhance the safety and security of the food supply,” according to the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council.