Plant breeders pre-empt climate effects

Queensland researchers are studying ways to protect grain nutrition levels from elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide

Image of Dr Saman Seneweera

(From left) Dr Saman Seneweera, with Dananjali Gamage and Michael Thompson (PhD students), Professor Saman Abeysinghe (Ruhuna University, Sri Lanka), Dr Achini De Silva (Sabaragamuwa University, Sri Lanka) and Associate Professor Hirotsu Naoki (visiting professor, Toyo University, Japan).

Researchers at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) are analysing the potential impact of climate change on wheat and rice nutrition, and identifying biochemical susceptibilities and ways to address them now.

If atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels rise, as projected, to 550 parts per million by 2050, one of the effects on cereals would be reduced protein and micronutrient levels (primarily zinc and iron).

The university’s research points to two contributing factors for the diminished grain micronutrients and protein concentration at elevated CO2 levels. The first appears to be increased starch biosynthesis, and the second contributing factor seems to be decreased nutrient uptake and remobilisation under  elevated CO2. The research shows that these two factors, combined, play a major role in determining nutrient concentration in grain.

Team leader Dr Saman Seneweera, from USQ’s Centre for Crop Health (CCH), says this reduction could be as much as 15 per cent, with obvious consequences for human nutrition – especially in poorer countries relying on these foods. Such a fall in grain protein levels would also affect grain-based food processing, including flour milling and baking.

The World Health Organization has estimated eight million people – mostly children – already die each year because of micronutrient deficiencies. Dr Seneweera says climate change threatens to make the grains that these vulnerable populations rely on even less nutritious.

“So we are looking at how climate change will impact on cereal protein and minerals, and looking for the genes we can introduce to maintain grain protein and micronutrients as the climate changes,” Dr Seneweera says.

“We are looking to identify genes that can be introduced into wheat and rice pre-breeding and then made widely available in future commercial varieties.”

Dr Seneweera’s team is also looking into developing crops that better tolerate the broader impact of climate change, particularly more severe droughts and higher temperatures.

CCH’s work on climate change is being funded by the GRDC, USQ and the International Plant Nutrition Institute.

Working with Dr Seneweera are visiting Professor Hirotsu Naoki from Japan’s Toyo University and Endeavour Fellow Dr Achini De Silva from Sabaragamuwa University in Sri Lanka, as well as Professor Saman Abeysinghe and two PhD students from USQ.

Dr Seneweera has also been collaborating with Harvard Medical School, the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of Ruhuna in Sri Lanka on the effect of climate change on grains.

Dr Seneweera, a plant physiologist, has been investigating this area for 25 years. His findings on decreased zinc and iron in rice as a result of climate change were included in the international treaty on climate change, the Kyoto Protocol.

Since then research into the effect of increased CO2 on protein and micronutrients in cereals and pasture grasses such as Panicum has increased, and scientists in Australia, China, Germany, Japan, Sri Lanka and the US are now collaborating.

The CCH team uses its own controlled environment and laboratory facilities in Toowoomba, Queensland, to conduct its research, as well as the Australian Grains Free Air CO2 Enrichment (AGFACE) facility at Horsham, Victoria, through its collaboration with the Victorian Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources and the University of Melbourne.

The CCH team is also looking at the effects of increased CO2 on plant pathogens and diseases that affect cereals, such as crown rot.

More information:

Liz Wells,
0418 484 446,


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GRDC Project Code USQ00020, DAV00137

Region North