School’s back in session and that means packed sandwiches to go. While many parents would love to use only whole-grain wheat breads, they don’t want to take the chance of an untouched sandwich returning home.

Ruta wheat has come to their rescue. This healthful variety bakes up to look like white bread but contains the nutritional value of whole grain.

“After you grind the Ruta wheat seeds, the flour takes on a light, white coloring. This flour can then be baked into what looks like white-bread rolls and for kids who don’t like to eat brown bread, this is the perfect solution,” Naama Rosenberg, spokesperson of Israel’s Agricultural Research Organization – Volcani Center, tells ISRAEL21c.

Volcani scientists used cell engineering to develop Ruta, making it the first such wheat ever introduced to commercial agriculture. In addition to being more nutritious, Ruta boasts a high baking quality equaling that of Australian prime hard wheat – considered the ultimate wheat for baking.

Israel is renowned for its agriculture technologies. The country’s crop-themed pavilion at the recent World Expo in Milan showcased Israeli expertise in the cultivation of crops in arid areas.

World demand for wheat is constantly growing. Image via Shutterstock.com
World demand for wheat is constantly growing. Image via Shutterstock.com

“Wheat is one of the most important crops in the world. Demand for wheat is growing constantly. Because wheat is the main, sometimes the only, nutritional source for populations in developing countries, it is important that wheat varieties contain as many healthy ingredients as possible. We place emphasis on healthy characteristics of wheat and increasing harvests,” according to a statement from Volcani, a government-sponsored institute that specializes in creating new wheat varieties.

Volcani exports its technologies to bigger grain-growing regions. Ruta-growing techniques are already being exported to Italy, for example.

In Israel, Ruta is made into flour by the Shtibal company and then sold wholesale. You can’t buy Ruta flour in the supermarket but you can buy rolls made from it in local bakeries. This marks the first time that wheat developed in Israel is the basis for local bread without adding imported wheat.

“The Ruta will not solve world hunger,” Rosenberg says, but she notes that “it’s a nutritional and healthier solution” for the health-conscious consumer.

Using similar techniques, Volcani scientists also developed Bar-Nir, a high-quality baking wheat that has proven uniquely resistant to infestation from “flour fleas.”

A botanical milestone

Meanwhile, a joint initiative by Tel Aviv University (TAU) and the NRGene  genomic big-data startup in Ness Ziona could accelerate global research into improving global wheat yields.

The partners successfully decoded the complex wild emmer wheat genome, from which cultivated wheat was first developed.

Since 2005, hundreds of scientists in the wheat genome consortium IWGSC  have been trying to decode the emmer sequence with an investment of more than $50 million so far. NRGene researchers were able to decode the genome within one month, with only half a million dollars, using a powerful software computing tool based on algorithms that analyze large databases.

The TAU researchers then translated this map for the development of genes that are resistant to diseases while improving the wheat crop.

“The repercussions of the mapping will be felt around the world,” says TAU’s Assaf Distelfeld, a renowned wheat geneticist.
“Scientists will now be able to identify key genes in the emmer wheat and introduce them into commercial wheat via classical breeding, creating hardier varieties across environmental conditions, and ultimately increasing the global food supply.”

NRGene CEO Gil Ronen says that mapping the wild emmer wheat gene will enable scientists, seed researchers and seed companies to breed seeds with higher yields and better disease resistance.

“Since the first maize was mapped in 2009, it has already boosted breeding practices and increased the global food supply significantly,” says Ronen. “We expect the emmer wheat genome map to have an even greater effect, as the complexity of the wheat genome makes a full map a critical tool for breeding.”

He calls this step “a peak in the study of botany, as the wheat genome is more complicated than that of other plants and even more complicated than human genomes.”

NRGene CEO Gil Ronen presenting the emmer map to First Lady Nechama Rivlin in Jerusalem. Photo by Tomer Reichman
NRGene CEO Gil Ronen presenting the emmer map to First Lady Nechama Rivlin in Jerusalem. Photo by Tomer Reichman

The NRGene and TAU teams presented their groundbreaking findings to First Lady Nechama Rivlin at a ceremony in the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.

Rivlin said she hoped the study would continue to yield positive results for Israeli and world agriculture.
“I’m just as excited as you are and perhaps more,” the First Lady told the researchers, programmers and algorithm experts. “I feel a connection to this project as the subject of agriculture is close to my heart and I studied natural sciences and biology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.”

Now with the information decoded, crop growers and developers can significantly reduce the cultivation process and quickly isolate desirable genes and develop new varieties.

“Mapping emmer wheat is critical to global wheat research as it is the direct ancestor of cultivated wheat,” says Distelfeld. “Today, thanks to the genome map, we can find features that are tolerant to drought and disease, and can raise the amount of protein as well as other characteristics that can benefit humans.”