K-State to house National Science Foundation’s wheat innovation center

The National Science Foundation has named Kansas State University the lead institution for the first Industry/University Cooperative Research Center on wheat, according to a news release.

The center will focus on improving food production and disease resistance of wheat and other crops and will serve as a training center for graduate students and researchers, said Bikram Gill, professor of plant pathology and director of the university’s Wheat Genetic and Geonomic Resources Cente.

Gill will serve as director of the new center.

The National Science Foundation awarded a seed grant of $102,000 to start the center with a stipulation that at least three industry partners sign on. The grant can be renewed for five years.

So far, Gill said 10 companies have agreed to participate: Bayer CropScience, Syngenta, Limagrain, Dow AgroSciences LLC, General Mills, Heartland Plant Innovation Center, Kansas Wheat Alliance, Kansas Wheat Commission, Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee and the Colorado Wheat Research Foundation.

Each industry partner will be expected to contribute $50,000 a year toward the center, and each will have a representative on an advisory board that will work with K-State scientists to address the issues facing the industry.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Kansas winter wheat production topped $2.9 billion in 2012.

So far, the biggest issues facing wheat crops are the drought and heat, Gill said.

“This year was one of the poorest crops caused by drought in western Kansas,” Gill said. “The yield was 50 percent of what it was last year. There are two things: an increasing human population and and increasingly stressful environment under which crops are grown with limited resources.”

“We need to invest more in the plant, how it works and how to resist drought and find genetic answers to these problems.”

The funding will also go toward hiring scientists, graduate researchers and undergraduates, Gill said.

“The industry also depends on us to train future scientists in the wheat industy,” he said.

There are 61 other National Science Foundation cooperative research centers across the country; they focus on such subjects as engineering and electronics. The K-State center is the first for crops.

The research center will operate primarily from the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center in Manhattan, where researchers use the Wheat Genetics Resource Center’s wheat gene bank, which contains 14,000 wild wheat species strains and 10,000 genetic stocks. The bank is one of the largest in the world and supplies public and private researchers, Gill said.

Colorado State University will also be part of the center, but KSU is the lead institution. Gill said they hope to grow the center in future years by adding other universities and private partners to the center.

In 1984, Congress approved line-item funding to support the Wheat Genetics Resource Center, $90,000 to $350,000 until 2009, and $1 million in 2010, Gill said, and then two years ago, the funding was cut.

Some support for the program was picked up by Kansas State and Heartland Plant Innovations, but they hope this new model of working with industry partners will help the program grow, he said.

“To me the most satisfying part is that the industry is recognizing that we need to preserve genetic resources, which are sort of the basis of all the advancements in crop improvements,” Gill said.

The National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950, according to its website. Its annual budget is about $7 billion and it funds about 20 percent of all federally supported research in colleges and universities across the country.