Zebularine treatment is associated with deletion of FT-B1 leading to an increase in spikelet number in bread wheat

The number of rachis nodes (spikelets) on a wheat spike is a component of grain yield that correlates with flowering time. The genetic basis regulating flowering in cereals is well understood, but there are reports that flowering time can be modified at a high frequency by selective breeding, suggesting that it may be regulated by both epigenetic and genetic mechanisms. We investigated the role of DNA methylation in regulating spikelet number and flowering time by treating a semi‐spring wheat with the demethylating agent, Zebularine. Three lines with a heritable increase in spikelet number were identified. The molecular basis for increased spikelet number was not determined in 2 lines, but the phenotype showed non‐Mendelian inheritance, suggesting that it could have an epigenetic basis. In the remaining line, the increased spikelet phenotype behaved as a Mendelian recessive trait and late flowering was associated with a deletion encompassing the floral promoter, FT‐B1. Deletion of FT‐B1 delayed the transition to reproductive growth, extended the duration of spike development, and increased spikelet number under different temperature regimes and photoperiod. Transiently disrupting DNA methylation can generate novel flowering behaviour in wheat, but these changes may not be sufficiently stable for use in breeding programs.