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A new study has given new insights into the origins of agriculture that can help shape the future of food.
Scientists from University of Sheffield, looking at why the first arable farmers chose to domesticate some cereal crops and not others, studied those that originated in the Fertile Crescent, an arc of land in western Asia from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf.
They grew wild versions of what are now staple foods like wheat and barley along with other grasses from the region to identify the traits that make some plants suitable for agriculture, including how much edible seed the grasses produced and their architecture.
Researcher Catherine Preece said that the results surprised them because numerous other grasses that our ancestors ate, but we do not, can produce just as much seed as wild wheat and barley and it is only when these plants are grown at high densities, similar to what they would find in fields, that the advantage of wild wheat and barley is revealed.
The study identified two key characteristics shared by the wild relatives of current crop plants. Firstly they have bigger seeds, which means they grow into bigger seedlings and are able to get more than their fair share of light and nutrients, and secondly, as adult plants they are less bushy than other grasses and package their big seeds onto fewer stems.
This means crop wild relatives perform better than the other wild grasses that they are competing with and are better at growing close together in fields, making them ideal for using in agriculture.
Preece added that the results are important because the expanding human population is putting increasing demands on food production and before humans learnt how to farm, our ancestors ate a much wider variety of grasses. If people can understand what traits have made some grasses into good crops then they can look for those characteristics in other plants and perhaps identify good candidates for future domestication.
She added that to shape the future people must understand the past, so the more they can discover about the origins of agriculture, the more information they will have to help tackle the challenges that face modern day food production.
Preece concluded that cereal breeders are taking an increasing interest in modern crops' wild relatives as a source of useful traits that may help to increase yields or increase resilience to climate change and their work should help in this process.