School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Wheat Breeding and Genetics Research Among Journal’s Top Cited Publications

Professor Hussein Shimelis, Professor of Plant Breeding at UKZN, Deputy Director of the African Centre for Crop Improvement and South African Sugarcane Research Institute Chair of Crop Science, co-authored a paper on breeding drought-tolerant wheat that is among the top 10% most cited papers published in the PLOS ONE open access journal.

Co-authored with postdoctoral research fellow at UKZN Dr Learnmore Mwadzingeni, and the Agricultural Research Council’s Drs Jasper Rees and Toi Tsilo, the 2017 publication is titled: Genome-wide association analysis of agronomic traits in wheat under drought-stressed and non-stressed conditions.

PLOS ONE is a leading multidisciplinary open-access science journal that publishes rigorously peer-reviewed research.

The paper emanated from a National Research Foundation (NRF) funded wheat breeding research project on drought tolerance headed by Shimelis and undertaken in collaboration with South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council Small Grains Institute (ARC-SG) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre. The project developed drought-tolerant elite breeding lines to be made available to wheat breeders and growers in South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.

The study featured in the paper unravelled the population structure and genome-wide marker-trait association of agronomic traits of wheat for drought-tolerance breeding. This important commercial crop is a source of several nutrients and vitamins, but its production is constrained by temperature stress and drought conditions, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

To contribute to the effort to breed drought-tolerant wheat, Shimelis and his co-authors conducted an association analysis, aiming to identify genomic regions associated with key agro-morphological traits that will enable plant breeders to develop ideal cultivars or breeding lines to achieve drought-tolerance.

The research led to the discovery of new marker-trait associations, valued by researchers as useful resources to initiate marker-assisted selection and for targeted trait introgression of wheat under drought-stressed and non-stressed conditions. It will also be useful for fine mapping and cloning of the underlying genes and quantitative trait loci that control key traits of the plant.

The research also opened up avenues for further investigation, particularly validation of the significant markers identified using a larger population and following the multiple loci mixed model to increase the power of association detection.

The high citation of this paper signifies the quality of the research and its wide readership among the scientific community. This advances knowledge in genetic analysis and breeding of wheat and allied cereal crops for drought and heat stress tolerance.

Shimelis, whose more than 25 years of expertise in Plant Breeding teaching and research earned him a place among Africa’s top 20 most influential plant breeders of 2020, has been one of UKZN’s top 30 most productive researchers for five consecutive years. He is part of initiatives to advance the science in southern Africa to improve food security, including the international Demand-Led Breeding project that aims to transform African agriculture in the area of crop improvement through producing customer-focused, high-performing crop varieties. He has supervised 50 PhD, 30 masters and 11 honours students to completion to boost the human capital in the plant-breeding arena, as well as mentored postdoctoral fellows, and has more than 250 publications to his name.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Supplied