Climate Resilient Wheat with Kulvinder Gill

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Contact Information:

Contact Kulvinder Gill by email at or by phone at 509-335-4666. Also available is Kulvinder’s faculty page for more of his research.

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Episode Transcription:

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Drew Lyon: Hello, and welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat Podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. We have weekly discussions with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production.

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Drew Lyon: My guest this week is Kulvinder Gill, Professor of Genetics and Director of the Climate Resilient Wheat Innovation Lab here at WSU. Hi, Kulvinder.

Kulvinder Gill: Hi, Drew.

Drew Lyon: I was out at the Lind Field Station visiting with Bill Schillinger, and he talked about some work on trying to wheats to emerge from deeper soil depths, and coming from the Great Plains, I was just really amazed by how deep some of these growers need to plant their wheat to get it down to moisture. And Bill was is working with you to try and develop some wheats that have that ability to really come up from those deep depths. I wonder if you can talk a little bit more about that project you’re working with him on.

Kulvinder Gill: Yeah, Bill and I, we have been working on it for last, oh, five, six years. So, the reason that project is important is that with the semi-dwarf being introduced in ’60s, that brought forth green evolution, but that didn’t help the farmers in the lower end rainfall area. Because the older wheats would emerge better from deeper depths, but to these new semi-dwarfs, they were not. So, as a result, those farmers are still using some of the very old varieties like Buchannan because they have better margins. So, what we are trying to do is benefit from the dwarfing genes because they have advantage, but at the same time make the wheats that can emerge from deeper depths. And then, we have developed some germplasm that could emerge from six inches depth from like, in nine days. It’s amazing, so now the question is how to transfer that into a variety is a different project. But, we do have material that probably has the best emergence anywhere in the world. We have compared with the material from Australia as well.

Drew Lyon: That’s really exciting. So, how long – you have this trait – how long does it take to transfer that into varieties these days?

Kulvinder Gill: So, we have this what we call fast breeding method. We can transfer a trait and develop a variety in two years, and another two to three years for testing and seed increase. So, from start to finish, we can have seed and on farmer’s field in about five years. But, we currently are not doing the breeding part, just because Grain Commission is focusing on other projects, and then it’s just always priority issue – falling number [was the priority] this year. We did get funding from them for a while, but if there was – if we start the breeding part, we can finish in about five.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So, that’s just a project of yours that caught my attention. I knew your project is a lot bigger than just that issue. What are some of the other things you work on in your project?

Kulvinder Gill: Yeah, so we have two other major projects, and one is fairly large, about $16.3 million project where about half of the funding is from U.S. Other half is from the Indian government. There, what we are trying to do is develop wheat varieties that can tolerate much higher temperatures. So, oftentimes, we say, okay, the heat is problem in maybe southeast Asia or in the Middle East. But, I strongly believe heat is an issue in PNW also. Because spring wheat yields are about half that of winter. And, there’s no reason for that because some of the highest yielding wheats in the world are spring wheats. So, we have done a simulation study where we have learned that any year when the temperature, we have actually looked at last 15 years’ worth of data. And, any year there’s temperature that goes above 85 degrees Fahrenheit during flowering, there’s a yield, major yield dip no matter which variety we look at. The yield pattern of all varieties look identical, what we have looked at. So, there’s a clear evidence that heat is causing damage and bad yield today. So, there, in that project, we are trying to not only learn the genetics and molecular biology and physiology of this heat tolerance trait, but also developing varieties. So, the project is focused on Southeast Asia, but the germplasm we have identified is equally beneficial for the Middle East. I mean, sorry, Midwest and, like, Kansas. Heat is a big issue there. And, for us, it’s a big issue, especially spring wheat. So, we’re requesting Grain Commission this year to provide some matching funds so that we can actually focus on the germplasm element for PNW. So, there’s a big project. We have 47 scientists from 17 partner institutes, and I’m leading it. So, you can imagine what I have to go through. So, in addition to that project, we are also learning or understanding what controls chromosome pairing in wheat and why that is important. Yes, it’s a very important, basic question, but it has immediate application. Because diseases like stripe rust are evolving at very fast pace. And, we are almost out of resistant genes. And, the resistant genes are present in wild relatives, except wild relative chromosomes, they cannot be, genes, single genes cannot be transferred. Oftentimes, we transfer half a chromosome or a complete chromosome which is what, like 1,000 to 5,000 genes. We don’t want 5,000 genes transferred from, say wild rye. We want only one gene. So, this gene, this Ph gene that we are characterizing, we can manipulate this gene to transfer a single gene from wild relatives and without the unwanted chromatid. So, these are the two big projects that are going on in the lab, in addition to that, what we’re wrapping up the variety development on Clearfield.

Drew Lyon: You’ve kind of hinted at it in your answers, but what are some of the things that you think your program brings to the wheat grower of the Pacific Northwest as well as to the world?

Kulvinder Gill: Right. So, my program, the way that I see it, so we have three excellent breeders, and then we lot of basic scientists. So, I feel myself bridging that gap. So, my program focuses on bringing modern information from model systems into wheat improvement. So, my goal was not to develop wheat varieties, although, we have developed three wheat varieties. But, that was mainly to optimize this fast breeding method rather than just to breed wheat. So, we have successfully developed that method, and now, anyone can use that method to very, develop varieties in a very fast pace. So, marker development, like, for example, this emergence, we learned from model systems, corn, all the auxin transport work and tried to use that in wheat to use a different type of dwarfing genes that will not affect emergence from deeper depths. So, that’s kind of what my program is all about.

Drew Lyon: Very good. So, if people want to, if our listeners want to go and listen or learn a little bit more about what you do, where can they go to find some information on your program?

Kulvinder Gill: So, instead of having information at multiple sites, so originally, we had many different websites. So, what we have done now is linked everything through our main department page which is That is our main department page, and then under my name. So, the heat tolerance project information is more of a level on USAID link page. So, Agrilink page is linked through the, our departmental page. And then, this dwarfing gene page is also linked through the main page. So, the best way to get more information is go through the CSS department page, look for my name, and then go to that page, and it will take you to different projects.

Drew Lyon: Very good. Thank you very much, Kulvinder.

Kulvinder Gill: Not at all. Thank you, Drew.

Drew Lyon: Thanks for listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you have questions for us, that you’d like to hear addressed on future episodes, please email me at You can find us online at You can also find us on social media on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. Subscribe to this show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications in the College of Agricultural Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon; we’ll see you next week.

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