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Breeding for more efficient phosphorus use in winter wheat

The project team is looking for a low phosphorus field in Ontario to help with the study for the fall.

July 5, 2019  By Stephanie Gordon

A University of Guelph study is looking for a low-phosphorus field in Ontario to help continue its research into breeding for phosphorus use efficiency (PUE) in winter wheat.

Phosphorus (P) is the second-most limiting nutrient in wheat production and commercial phosphorus fertilizers can be costly. Phosphorus runoff also causes eutrophication of important water sources such as Lake Erie. All of these facts combined became the motivators for the PUE study.

Kaitlyn Sjonnesen is a graduate student at the University of Guelph currently working on the PUE study. The project’s main goal is to develop tools and strategies for breeding phosphorus use efficiency in winter wheat. By uncovering tools to breed varieties that perform well under phosphorus-deficient conditions, the study results can help boost wheat production, reduce input costs, and minimize the impact of phosphorus on the environment.


The study used 200 lines of winter wheat, which represent the historic and geographic diversity of winter wheat grown in Canada. The field experiments took place at the Elora Research Station in Elora, Ont. In the experiment, each line was grown under low phosphorus conditions and adequate phosphorus conditions. The adequate phosphorus conditions were created by applying a treatment of monoammonium phosphate to a phosphorus deficient field.

Within the two phosphorus scenarios, Sjonnesen explains they hope to see variation in the performance of the winter wheat lines from winter survival to yield components. An observable difference among wheat lines will allow the team to run a genome-wide association study (GWAS) to pinpoint lines that maintain a desirable performance under low P conditions.

Overall, the experiment hopes to identify wheat lines that perform well in phosphorus-deficient conditions. Then, through closer analysis, the team can identify traits that are related to PUE and determine the genetic basis for good PUE.

Early results

The study is still in the middle of its first year of field experiments, but there have been some promising observations. “So far, we have evaluated the Elora Research Station field for winter survival and days to heading,” Sjonnesen says. “No firm analysis has been run yet, but we are excited to see that there is prominent variation in how the lines respond to the phosphorus treatments.”

In some lines, heading in the low phosphorus plots was not delayed when compared to the adequate phosphorus plots. However, in other lines, heading was delayed by several days.

When comparing winter wheat in terms of winter survival, there was some variation between lines. The varied response among lines is good because the variation will help the team detect genomic regions that are responsible for PUE during the GWAS stage of the project.

On the lookout for another field to continue

Sjonnesen says after this year’s field experiments at the Elora Research Station, the team hopes to plant another field in Elora as well as a second location in the fall. Sjonnesen is currently on the lookout for a field low in phosphorus in the southern Ontario region to continue the study.

“These fields need to be low in phosphorus for us to apply the treatment, [so] I’m looking to connect with any growers that have around an acre that is low in phosphorus and would be interested in growing research plots,” Sjonnesen adds.

She explains an ideal field would give a composite Olsen Phosphorus test around 10 parts per million and also be around, or less than, an hour drive from Guelph, Ont. Interested growers who meet the study criteria can reach Sjonnesen at

Once the study is completed, breeders can use the results to better breed winter wheat varieties that perform well under phosphorus-deficient conditions and have better phosphorus use efficiency. A full project update will be available in a future edition of Top Crop Manager East.


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