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[BEIJING] Scientists have found how to boost the protein, zinc and iron content in wheat, which could help to solve nutritional deficiency that affects two billion people worldwide, especially in the developing world.

Reporting their results in the journal Science today (24 November), the scientists identify a gene that functions in wild wheat but not in domesticated wheat varieties.

After inserting the gene into cultivated wheat with conventional breeding methods, they found it makes the grain mature more quickly and increases its protein and nutrient content by 10-15 per cent.

According to Jorge Dubcovsky, of the University of California in Davis, United States who led the study, scientists have long known that several varieties of wild wheat have higher protein content than domesticated types.

But it is only now, using a genetic mapping technique — which determines the relative positions of genes on a chromosome — that they have discovered which gene was responsible for the traits.

The work is part of a larger-scale breeding programme for increasing wheat's nutritional content, the seeds from which are stored in the US National Small Grains Collection and can be provided free of charge.

"We have already distributed seeds to India, South America and China," Dubcovsky told SciDev.Net.

Wheat is one of the major world food crops, and accounts for 20 per cent of human calorie intake.

Advances in basic plant sciences applied to agriculture will be critical for successfully eradicating malnutrition and associated childhood mortality, says Jonathan D. Gitlin at the US-based Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, writing in a separate article in the same issue of Science.