Rock Doc column: Breeding better wheat

By E. Kirsten Peters, College of Agricultural, Human & Natural Resource Sciences

peters-e-k-2010-80PULLMAN, Wash. – Earlier this year I went to a fundraiser where I bought a bag of Glee flour. Glee is a variety of hard red spring wheat that was developed at Washington State University. I used the flour in my favorite bread recipe, one I have modified a bit from a Mennonite cookbook I treasure.

There’s a bit of soy flour and powered milk in my bread, which ups the protein content. The recipe calls for 50 percent white flour, 40 percent whole wheat and 10 percent rye. I used the Glee as the white flour. When I set the dough in a slightly warm oven, I was amazed at how fast it rose.

“That’s perfect,” said Kim Kidwell, a WSU professor who bred the wheat that went into the Glee flour. “Glee was specifically bred to bake bread, so I understand why the dough popped up quickly.”

All-purpose, no-purpose

She explained that “all-purpose flour” from the grocery store is a blend of wheat varieties, some of which are not ideal for baking bread.

“I often say that all-purpose flour is really no-purpose flour,” she said. “It is kind of good for making everything, but not great for making any one thing.”

I buy bread flour, not all-purpose flour, at the grocery store, just as my mother taught me. But Kidwell said even bread flour is a blend of varieties.

By using a lot of straight Glee flour in my bread, I benefited from its special properties. The bread made great eating, and now I know why.

Good yield and resistance

Glee is grown by farmers in the Pacific Northwest. It has several attractive features: it has good yield potential and good resistance to a disease called striped rust.

“I don’t want farmers to have to apply a lot of chemicals on their fields,” Kidwell said. “My favorite way to reduce input costs is through genetics.”

By genetics she means the traditional approach to breeding better plants: crossing varieties and looking for resultant strains that have desirable properties. If all goes well, it takes about 8-10 years from the time of the initial cross to having a variety ready for release to farmers. Breeding better plants is part of the ongoing research at land grant universities across the nation.

Name honors dedicated student

The name Glee deserves a bit of explanation. The variety was named in honor of Virginia Gale Lee, a graduate student in the WSU spring wheat breeding program. She was dedicated to research that could revolutionize crop production and help feed the world.

Sadly she was struck down by an aggressive cancer at age 24. Money to help support graduate students in her area has been donated to WSU, much of it from people who knew Lee and were inspired by her idealism and dedication.

I wish I had known her; the people who did were clearly touched by her life. But I’m glad I was able to learn about her – and about wheat breeding more generally – through my use of Glee flour.


Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.