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Micronutrient malnutrition, particularly zinc and iron deficiency, afflicts over three billion people worldwide due to low dietary intake. In the current study, wild emmer wheat (Triticum turgidum ssp. dicoccoides), the progenitor of domesticated wheat, was tested for (1) genetic diversity in grain nutrient concentrations, (2) associations among grain nutrients and their relationships with plant productivity, and (3) the association of grain nutrients with the eco-geographical origin of wild emmer accessions.
A total of 154 genotypes, including wild emmer accessions from across the Near Eastern Fertile Crescent and diverse wheat cultivars, were characterized in this 2-year field study for grain protein, micronutrient (zinc, iron, copper and manganese) and macronutrient (calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and sulphur) concentrations.
Wide genetic diversity was found among the wild emmer accessions for all grain nutrients. The concentrations of grain zinc, iron and protein in wild accessions were about two-fold greater than in the domesticated genotypes. Concentrations of these compounds were positively correlated with one another, with no clear association with plant productivity, suggesting that all three nutrients can be improved concurrently with no yield penalty. A subset of 12 populations revealed significant genetic variation between and within populations for all minerals. Association between soil characteristics at the site of collection and grain nutrient concentrations showed negative associations between soil clay content and grain protein and between soil-extractable zinc and grain zinc, the latter suggesting that the greatest potential for grain nutrient minerals lies in populations from micronutrient-deficient soils.
Wild emmer wheat germplasm offers unique opportunities to exploit favourable alleles for grain nutrient properties that were excluded from the domesticated wheat gene pool.