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Wheat can't stand the heat

18 August 2011

Modelling by researchers funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) predicts that heat stress during flowering (anthesis) may have a bigger impact on wheat yield in Europe than drought. The work, published today (18 August 2011) in the journal Scientific Reports, highlights the need for crop scientists and breeders to prioritise the development of wheat varieties that are resistant to high temperature around flowering.

Image: Rothamsted Research

Image: Rothamsted Research

By helping crop scientists and breeders focus on the most important traits for improvement, this research could lead to the development of wheat which is better able to cope with a changing climate so helping to ensure global food security.

Wheat is an important crop in temperate regions, including Europe, and is the staple food for millions of humans and their livestock. New varieties of wheat will need to be cultivated to cope with a changing climate characterized by increased summer drought and heat stress in Europe. But the uncertainty in climate predictions means crop scientists and breeders with limited time and resources must focus on the most important traits for improvement.

Mikhail Semenov and Peter Shewry of Rothamsted Research, which receives strategic funding from BBSRC, used a wheat simulation model combined with local-scale climate models to predict the impacts of climate change on European winter wheat yield. Drought has been considered to be the most significant environmental stress in agriculture world-wide. But the new analysis indicates that a more serious threat for wheat production in Europe may result from an increase in the frequency and magnitude of heat stress around the time of flowering, which could potentially lead to significant yield losses for heat-sensitive wheat varieties commonly grown in northern Europe.

Prof. Maurice Moloney, Director of Rothamsted Research, stated "The work of Professors Semenov and Shewry highlights the importance of mathematical modelling of dynamic agricultural systems: a procedure which often yields unexpected answers. These results give guidance to Rothamsted's 20:20 wheat strategy and suggest novel breeding targets for UK crops."


Notes to editors

This paper "Modelling predicts that heat stress, not drought, will increase vulnerability of wheat in Europe" has been published online today in Nature Scientific Reports

The scientific contact for this work is: Mikhail Semenov (Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, UK). Tel: +44 1582 763 133; E-mail:

About Rothamsted Research

Rothamsted Research is almost certainly the oldest agricultural research station in the world. Over its 160 year history, Rothamsted Research has built an enviable international reputation as a centre of excellence for science in support of sustainable crop management and its environmental impact. Its scientific research ranges from studies of genetics, biochemistry, cell biology and soil processes to investigations at the ecosystem and landscape scale. Rothamsted Research receives a total of £23.8M in strategic programme grants from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.


BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: .
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: .

External contact

Dr Darren Hughes, Press Office, Rothamsted Research

tel: 01582 763133 ext 2673
mob: 07812 342216