Improving photosynthesis is a major target for increasing crop yields and ensuring food security. Phenotyping of photosynthesis in the field is critical to understand the limits to crop performance in agricultural settings. Yet, detailed phenotyping of photosynthetic traits is relatively scarce in field-grown wheat, with previous studies focusing on narrow germplasm selections. Flag leaf photosynthetic traits, crop development, and yield traits were compared in 64 field-grown wheat cultivars in the UK. Pre-anthesis and post-anthesis photosynthetic traits correlated significantly and positively with grain yield and harvest index (HI). These traits included net CO2 assimilation measured at ambient CO2 concentrations and a range of photosynthetic photon flux densities, and traits associated with the light response of photosynthesis. In most cultivars, photosynthesis decreased post-anthesis compared with pre-anthesis, and this was associated with decreased Rubisco activity and abundance. Heritability of photosynthetic traits suggests that phenotypic variation can be used to inform breeding programmes. Specific cultivars were identified with traits relevant to breeding for increased crop yields in the UK: pre-anthesis photosynthesis, post-anthesis photosynthesis, light response of photosynthesis, and Rubisco amounts. The results indicate that flag leaf longevity and operating photosynthetic activity in the canopy can be further exploited to maximize grain filling in UK bread wheat.
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