Unlocking new solutions to global food production challenges

With more than 200 million tons produced globally each year, wheat is an essential, high protein, and nutrient-dense food source.

With the recent announcement that scientists have unlocked the wheat genome sequence, research being conducted by Utah State University (USU) Professor Jon Takemoto, Ph.D.—and funded in part by the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR)—holds promising new potential for addressing food production challenges across the globe.  

In August, the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium—a collaboration of more than 200 scientists from 47 research institutions in 20 countries—released the research on the wheat genome sequence in the international journal Science.

Wheat is a food staple in more than a third of the human population globally. As a result, cracking the wheat code could mean more efficient production of bread wheat varieties that better withstand climate challenges, produce higher yields, have higher nutritional quality, and are more environmentally sustainable.  

In a potential $19 billion global market, Professor Jon Takemoto, Ph.D. and his team, including his research partner Tom Chang, Ph.D., are developing a new fungicide to treat Fusarium Head Blight (FHB), also known as wheat blight, and other devastating crop diseases. Takemoto’s work converges with genome sequence data on several fronts. First, the sequencing of the wheat genome will enable Takemoto’s team to study the genetic effects of the wheat protection technology on the plant’s life cycle.  Additionally, there is potential for using Takemoto’s technology to improve wheat production without using stable genetic modification.

“We congratulate Dr. Takemoto and his team on their monumental discovery that addresses crop protection, including wheat blight and other diseases,” said LuAnn Adams, commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. “Their findings for this important commodity are promising and will lead to a number of important solutions for farmers in Utah and across the globe – just one more example why USU’s leadership is in agriculture research.” 

Takemoto and Chang received a University Technology Acceleration Grant through USTAR to continue development of K20 crop protection technology which can be used against several crop diseases including FHB, which can have devastating impacts on crop yields.  FHB is particularly costly to U.S. farmers: previous outbreaks cost the U.S. wheat and barley industry $2.7 billion from 1998 to 2000, and another estimated $4.4 billion in 2011.

While direct application of fungicides to crops in the field remains the most effective method for controlling various diseases, the high levels of use required to combat crop and turf resistance can be harmful to humans and animals. In 2007, Takemoto partnered with Baicor, a manufacturer of agriculture products based in Logan, Utah, to explore ways to address resistance and toxicity of wheat blight.

In the U.S., the market for wheat fungicides is large, and the worldwide crop fungicide market measures in the tens of billions of dollars. The development of K20 is poised to also benefit Utah’s $21 billion agriculture economy in the process. After hay, wheat is Utah’s largest crop. In 2017, Utah produced 6.2 million bushels of wheat.

Takemoto and Chang secured two patents for K20, which were issued to USU in 2014. Baicor has exclusive licensing rights to these for agricultural use. Recently, Baicor was acquired by Brandt Consolidated, Inc., a U.S. crop protection chemical company with subsidiaries in Europe, as well as North and South America. K20 sublicensing arrangements are currently under negotiation.

Takemoto, Chang, and Baicor recently conducted field testing with research collaborators in Nebraska. The published results support the effect of K20 as a potential stand-alone product and as a nontoxic additive to reduce the use of the more toxic chemicals now in use to control the disease. More work is underway to address some of the commercial aspects such as stability in heat, humidity, and UV exposure. This work, coupled with progress towards EPA regulatory approvals, will prepare this technology to go to market.

To learn more about Takemoto and Chang’s work and other projects supported by USTAR, visit ustar.org.