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Phenotypic and genetic analysis of spike and kernel characteristics in wheat reveals long-term genetic trends of grain yield components

Würschum, Tobias, Leiser, Willmar L., Langer, Simon M., Tucker, Matthew R., Longin, C. Friedrich H.
Theoretical and applied genetics 2018 v.131 no.10 pp. 2071-2084
breeding, chromosome mapping, cultivars, genetic analysis, genetic trend, genetic variation, genomics, grain yield, heritability, inheritance (genetics), loci, phenology, phenotype, prediction, quantitative trait loci, seed development, seeds, spikelets, staple crops, winter wheat, yield components
KEY MESSAGE: Phenotypic and genetic analysis of six spike and kernel characteristics in wheat revealed geographic patterns as well as long-term trends arising from breeding progress, particularly in regard to spikelet fertility, i.e. the number of kernels per spikelet, a grain yield component that appears to underlie the increase in the number of kernels per spike. Wheat is a staple crop of global relevance that faces continuous demands for improved grain yield. In this study, we evaluated a panel of 407 winter wheat cultivars for six characteristics of spike and kernel development. All traits showed a large genotypic variation and had high heritabilities. We observed geographic patterns for some traits in addition to long-term trends showing a continuous increase in the number of kernels per spike. This breeding progress is likely due to the increase in spikelet fertility, i.e. the number of kernels per spikelet. While the number of kernels per spike and spikelet fertility were significantly positively correlated, both traits showed a significant negative correlation with thousand-kernel weight. Genome-wide association mapping identified only small- and moderate-effect QTL and an effect of the phenology loci Rht-D1 and Ppd-D1 on some of the traits. The allele frequencies of some QTL matched the observed geographic patterns. The quantitative inheritance of all traits with contributions of additional small-effect QTL was substantiated by genomic prediction. Taken together, our results suggest that some of the examined traits were already the basis of grain yield progress in wheat in the past decades. A more targeted exploitation of the available variation, potentially coupled with genomic approaches, may assist wheat breeding in continuing to increase yield levels globally.