Some new crop varieties are bred to be more nutritious. Others are more resilient, bred to tolerate harsh environmental conditions. In a recent study from the American Society of Agronomy, researchers report on a variety of wheat that combines enhanced nutrition with increased resilience. During the study, the researchers also tested a breeding method that could reduce costs and save time compared to traditional methods.

The newly developed wheat variety contains higher levels of a naturally occurring carbohydrate, called fructans. “Wheat with increased fructan levels can be more climate-resilient in certain situations,” says Lynn Veenstra, a researcher at Cornell University, New York, US. “These situations include high salinity or cold temperatures.”

A source of soluble fiber

Fructans are long chains of the sugar fructose. Unlike the fructose present in foods, such as high-fructose corn syrup, fructans cannot be digested by humans. This makes fructans a good source of soluble fiber. Previous research has shown that consuming foods with higher fructan levels could also promote healthy gut bacteria.

In the US, a large portion of daily fructan intake comes from wheat products, such as bread. That makes developing high-fructan wheat important, the researchers note. Yet there is another advantage to using high-fructan wheat. “We wouldn’t have to supplement wheat products with fructans or fiber from other sources,” explains Veenstra. “This wheat would already contain higher levels of fructans.”

However, breeding high-fructan wheat can be time-consuming and expensive. “The development of nutritionally improved wheat varieties often requires extensive resources,” adds Veenstra.

Typically, a process called phenotyping takes the most time. Phenotyping is the measurement of crop characteristics – like fructan levels or yield.

Phenotyping allows plant breeders to compare new and existing varieties of crops. For example, they can test if newer varieties have higher or lower fructan levels than existing crops. At the same time, they need to make sure other crop features – like yield or disease resistance – are not reduced.