By ZACH FENT/Montana State News

Wheat farmers’ concerns may soon be put to rest as a new era of engineered crop can now stop bugs right in their tracks.

Montana State University’s Montana Agricultural Experiment Station (MAES) has been working closely with farmers, wheat breeders, agricultural scientists and geneticists in order to create a pest-resistant strain of wheat specifically tailored to the Orange Wheat Blossom Midge.

Targeting wheat crops, the midge burrows into the wheat seeds and lays its larvae. This process completely destroys the developing seed and crop, providing a new and larger generation of pests.

The midge came down to the Great Plains from Canada, first sighted in America in the early 1990s. Up until now, only small outbreaks causing moderate damage in crop productivity had been seen.

Recently, the presence of the midge in Montana has steadily increased and has become one of the major concerns facing farmers and the state’s cash crop-based economy.

In 2006, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported the first major outbreak in Montana, targeting the Flathead Valley. According to the USDA’s Northwestern Agricultural Research Center (NARC), the midge caused $1.5 million in economic loss in the Flathead Valley region.

According to the USDA, Montana plants roughly 5 million acres of wheat each year. Being one of the major cash crops produced in the state, a year with elevated numbers of the destructive midge could prove devastating for the agricultural industry and the state’s economy.

A typical acre of planted wheat can yield upwards of 70-80 bushels of the crop, according to reports by researchers Bob Stougaard and Brooke Bohannon with NARC. When the midge successfully integrates into the planted crop, it is not uncommon for yields to fall to roughly two bushels per acre.

MAES researchers have created a pest-resistant strain of wheat in order to protect the investment of farmers in Montana and all over the world from this pesky little bug.

Researcher Luther Talbert, collaborating with colleagues at North Dakota State University, found a strain of wheat that uniquely carries the gene SM1 that is toxic to the midge and its offspring.

By crossing the resistant strain with other non-resistant wheat strains, Talbert successfully created a hybrid strain that expresses the SM1 gene responsible for the wheat resistance.

“We crossed this line with the SM1 gene with varieties that were suitable to Northwest Montana and let nature derive progeny lines from that,” Talbert said. “From there, we planted those lines in the fields and selected the ones with characteristics we like.”

Talbert’s results showed that the SM1 gene successfully kills almost to all of the midges infecting the wheat, leaving only a few that could survive the toxins.

Talbert’s colleagues at MSU’s Department of Entomology fear that if all of the planted wheat is hybridized with the SM1 gene, then the midges that survive the toxins will form a new generation of midges that are resistant to the gene. These new SM1-resistant midges would be even harder to kill and could lead to more damage to the wheat crop all over the Americas.

To prevent a SM1-resistant breed of midges, researchers have proposed selling a mixture of 90 percent SM1-wheat and 10 percent normal wheat. This 10 percent of normal wheat allows for normal midges to reproduce in the seeds, preventing a potential SM1-resistant midge population to procreate.

Genetically modifying crops in order to express desirable traits such as larger yield, resistance to herbicides or pests and the ability to grow in harsh or unfavorable conditions has been around since the early 1990s when Monsanto’s team of researchers patented maize resistant to the herbicide Round Up, and has since been sold all over the world.

This was the first pest-resistant crop introduced into the market, and proved to easily and effectively protect corn from the dangers of insects and paved the way for future genetic modification.

SM1 hybrid wheat is now available for farmers to purchase.

– Edited by Patricia Morse

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