Maximising crop yield under water-limited conditions

Early vigour, root architecture and stay-green.

A number of physiological traits could be optimised in new cultivars to improve performance in environments that frequently experience drought. To maximise crop yield under water-limited conditions, considering the timing of water use and access to soil moisture is critical. Thus, the HickeyLab is exploring a number of above- and below-ground physiological traits that could offer yield benefits in different environments, such as early vigour, root architecture, and stay-green.

Drought research program

HickeyLab’s drought research program spans from lab to field. Initially, designer lines or populations are created in the speed breeding facility or engineered in the lab using genome editing. Plant populations are then examined under controlled environmental conditions and evaluated in a range of field environments using the University of Queensland’s state-of-the-art UAV phenotyping technology. UAV phenotyping is performed in collaboration with Professor Scott Chapman and Associate Professor Andries Potgieter. To quantify the level of drought stress and characterize environmental conditions, crop modeling approaches are employed in collaboration with Associate Professor Karine Chenu.

Discovery of the above- and below-ground physiological traits

In a GRDC-funded project led by Dr Jack Christopher at UQ (2013-2017), the HickeyLab team contributed to the discovery of genomic regions associated with root traits and stay-green traits that underpin drought adaptation in wheat (Christopher et al. 2021). Likewise, our research on durum wheat in partnership with ICRADA and the University of Adelaide has identified key loci influencing root and canopy traits important for yield under water-limited conditions (Alahamad et al. 2019; 2020). Most recently, our research has uncovered genomic regions controlling early vigour (Vukasovic et al. 2022) and canopy development (Kang et al. 2022) that could be harnessed to develop cultivars with improved yield under drought.

‘Rooty’ project

The HickeyLab is the Australian lead for the global collaborative research project ‘Rooty’, which is an International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP) project funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC). Through this project, we have developed elite wheat lines with modified root traits, which were evaluated for the first time in the field in 2021 using a combination of above- (UAV) and below-ground (root coring in collaboration with CSIRO) phenotyping techniques to validate changes to the root system and investigate root-shoot relationships.