Dr. Thorsten Schnurbusch, examining an accession of "miracle wheat", an ancient variety with the unusual property of having a branching head with an average of 25% more seeds per head/spike of wheat. He is studying this kind of wheat in the hopes of finding a way to combine/interbreed it with other varieties that have better agronomic performance (more bending resistance, disease resistance, and good baking quality.)
Schnurbusch works at IPK (the Institute for Plant Genetics and Crop Research), a government-funded research facility with a collection of over 150,000 fertile seeds to various old "accessions" (varietal families) of cereals, legumes, medicinal plants, oil & fiber plants, and grasses. This is the largest seed bank in the European Union. (St. Petersburg has 750,000 accessions). Most of these old plants are not productive for commercial planting but might have useful traits (parts). Most seed companies are not willing to fund genebanks, and so the public has to do it. The seed collection at Gatersleben originated in 1943 in German-controlled Austria. The genetic material was moved to the Harz mountains for safekeeping. In the late '40s and early '50s, the East German government established a genetic institute here, and it was reorganized after reunification. Their specialty is old European grain crops, and they have 51,000 varieties of wheat and barley alone.
Around 1900 German farms yielded an average of 1,200kg/hectare yield of grain. Now it's 8,000 kg/hectare is common, and the productivity gains have come from advances in fertilizer, mechanization, and developing plant varieties with shorter stalks so that more of the fixed carbon goes to the seeds. The old plants were not very productive, but they have useful traits that might be combined with other varieties.
- ©2016 George Steinmetz
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