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Roots may unlock improved durum resilience

Dr Samir Alahmad holding a soil core taken from the University of Queensland Gatton site to measure the root distribution of newly developed durum wheat lines with modified root traits.
Photo: Lee Hickey, UQ

For centuries, plant breeders have focused on improving productivity by focusing on above-ground traits to increase yields. However, as the search for yield improvements intensifies, especially in water-limited environments, plant roots are attracting increasing interest.

Dr Samir Alahmad is a GRDC-supported postdoctoral fellow, mentored by scientists from multiple disciplines across several institutes, including the University of Queensland, the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, CSIRO and the University of Adelaide. He has been working closely with Assoc Professor Lee Hickey’s team at the University of Queensland on a project designing roots to enhance durum wheat yields. It builds on the research findings of his PhD research, which was funded by the University of Queensland Research Scholarship and Monsanto’s Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program.

“As a student in Syria growing up in the wheat growing region of Rojava, I became aware early in my life of the ways in which poverty impacts on the ability of a country to feed its people. Because of this, I chose to study agriculture at the University of Damascus so that I could contribute to the urgent task of satisfying my country’s and the world’s increasing need for grain, particularly wheat,” Dr Alahmad says.

After moving to Australia 12 years ago, the offer of a PhD scholarship at the University of Queensland gave me the opportunity to follow my passion for crop science and genetics, while also providing a way for me to use my skills to help alleviate global poverty, a cause close to my heart.

Building on studies

Dr Alahmad’s PhD gave critical insights into the genetic control of root architecture and the identification of key regions on genes influencing root growth angle and root biomass that showed promising associations with yield in water-limited environments.

“This foundational work provided the opportunity to combine root architecture traits to potentially improve the adaptive capacity of Australian durum wheat to drought-affected environments.”

His current research represents critical GRDC investment in maintaining delivery of new knowledge, innovation and benefits that ultimately assist in enhancing durum wheat yields for Australian growers.

New tools

Last year, Dr Alahmad created elite durum lines with unique root trait combinations, which are being evaluated this growing season in 14 Australian environments with GRDC support and collaboration with LongReach Plant Breeders.

Dr Alahmad is using hyperspectral camera sensors on drones ground-truthed with root cores to undertake detailed testing of these lines in different environments. The aim is to validate the traits and determine the optimal root architecture to support yields under varying water-deficit conditions.

Ultimately the project will deliver elite durum germplasm, together with molecular markers, to Australian breeding companies which will assist in developing new, resilient varieties for growers.

His goal is to help growers to sustainably implement profitable cropping systems, particularly in the face of drought and climate change.

“As an early career scientist, I am looking forward to further connecting and collaborating with the wider national and international scientific community to exchange novel research ideas and deliver impactful research to meet wheat growers’ needs for new knowledge and tools.”

More information: Dr Samir Alahmad, 0405 946 915,, @samir_alahmad

Learn more about the team that Dr Alahmad works with at the Hickey Lab, or Dr Alahmad's work.

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