A University research team in Israel has published the results of its study of a variety of wild wheat for traits that could be bred into cultivated wheat to protect it from insects, the university announced on 8 August.

A staple crop that provided 20% of the world population's caloric and human protein intake, wheat was continuously preyed upon by insect herbivores which often caused severe damage and resulted in significant yield losses, the team said.

One of the most serious threats to wheat is aphids, tiny insects which suck out the wheat’s nutrients and introduce deadly plant viruses, according to the research team at Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev.

In its study of wild emmer wheat, the research team found it had at least two defence mechanisms against insect pests. Firstly, wild wheat has a coating of “hairs” that prevent insects from finding a place to burrow into the stalk and this could potentially be bred back into cultivated wheat to protect it.

Secondly, wheat produces a poison - a phytochemical called benzoxazinoid - that discourages bugs from eating the wheat.

The team, led by Prof Vered Tzin of the French Associates Institutes for Agriculture and Biotechnology of Drylands, one of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at BGU, successfully isolated the gene that controls the production of this poison.

“It is of the utmost importance to rigorously explore natural plant defence mechanisms and traits, which we could breed back into cultivated wheat to protect them against insects, instead of using harmful pesticides, which do not even work that well,” Prof Tzin said.

“Now that we know which gene controls its production, we can generate improved cultivated wheat with the same self-defence capabilities.”

The BGU research team’s findings were published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Experimental Botany and Frontiers in Plant Science.

The research was supported by the Israel Science Foundation and the Binational Agricultural Research and Development (BARD) Fund.