Scientists discover perennial hybrid of wheat, wheatgrass

perennial wheat, wheatgrass
Colin Curwen-McAdams and others at Washington State University, have combined wheat and wheatgrass in a new perennial grain species.

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. — Scientists at Washington State University have combined wheat and wheatgrass in a new hybrid perennial grain crop called Salish Blue.

Salish Blue is just one variety of a new species, _Tritipyrum aaseae. It’s the first new species to be named by wheat breeders at Washington State in 122 years of breeding.

Unlike bread wheat, which is planted and dies in a single generation, perennial grains hold the promise of bearing seed for multiple harvests. At the same time, perennial hybrids can bring ecological benefits to grain production.

“Perennial grains add value in ways other than just being wheat,” said Colin Curwen-McAdams, a graduate research assistant at the WSU Bread Lab at Mount Vernon. “What we need right now are crops that hold the soil, add organic matter and use moisture and nutrients more efficiently. That’s the goal of this breeding program.”

Salish Blue was developed as a potential food and dairy forage crop for the Pacific Northwest, according to Stephen Jones, wheat breeder and director of the lab.

“We’re working with farmers to determine what Salish Blue will do and how it will fit with their rotations,” said Jones.

Long time in lab

For the past century, breeders around the world have been trying to develop a perennial grain crop from wheat and its wild relatives. Development of Salish Blue caps 21 years of work by WSU scientists to stabilize bread wheat-wheatgrass hybrids through classical plant breeding without using gene modification.

Combining wheatgrass with bread wheat, which contains three separate genomes, posed a challenge.

“It’s incredibly difficult to get what qualities you want, and hold on to them over generations, while not bringing along other things that aren’t desirable,” said Jones.

About the name

The new species is named after professor Hannah Aase, who explored wheat genetics as a botanist and cell biologist at Washington State College, now WSU, from 1914 to 1949. She died in 1980.

“The work Dr. Aase did was important but largely overlooked,” said Curwen-McAdams. “She was trying to answer the question of where wheat comes from. We wanted to honor her and bring her back to the forefront.”

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