Sample of wheat at Natural History MuseumImage source, BBC/Tony Jolliffe
Image caption, The Natural History Museum's archive includes wheat collected on Captain Cook's voyage

There is a 300-year-old museum collection that could hold the key to feeding the world.

The Natural History Museum's archives hold 12,000 samples of wheat and its relatives, and scientists want to find out if they are related.

In order to identify the genetic secrets of hardier wheat varieties, the most promising samples are having their genomes sequence.

The crop is being put under pressure by pests and diseases.

There are hundreds of old cardboard files lined up in rows in the museum vaults. Some of them contain dried leaves, stems or ears of grain from hundreds of years ago.

Many of them are written in beautiful copper-plate handwriting, detailing where and when they were found. Useful information is provided by it all.

There is a specimen that was collected on Captain Cook's first voyage to Australia. She is part of the team that digitises the archive.

A wild wheat plant is found in the sample. It is very different to the varieties grown in fields today. The team is interested in the differences

We have samples from before the introduction of various agricultural techniques, so they can give us information about how wheat was growing before things like artificial fertilisers.

Wheat at John Innes CentreImage source, BBC/Tony Jolliffe
Image caption, Wheat makes up about a fifth of the total calories consumed around the world

One of the most important crops in the world is wheat, which is an essential part of our diet.

A lot of grain is grown in the war-torn country of Ukraine.

Climate change, and the extreme weather it brings, is having an impact, with scientists calculating that a 1C rise in global temperature can cause a reduction in the amount we can grow around the world.

The projected annual yield has been reduced due to pests and diseases.

The modern wheat crops are not doing as well as they could. Farmers grew the varieties that produced the most grain as a result of the green revolution. The diversity of wheat was reduced because of the pursuit of producing the biggest harvests.

Dr Matthew Clark is a geneticist at the Natural History Museum and he wants to know if there are some things that we have lost.

As the world's population grows, it will need more wheat. Scientists need to find wheat varieties that can grow in places where it currently can't be grown, as well as crops that can survive changing environments.

More developing countries could increase their food supply if they looked at crops that were able to survive in more marginal areas.

Traditional plant breeding, genetic modification or gene editing could be used to do this.

Landrace wheat collectionImage source, BBC/Tony Jolliffe
Image caption, The John Innes Centre is also looking back through a 100-year-old wheat archive

The scientists at the John Innes Centre are looking for old wheat samples.

The Watkins landrace collection has varieties from all over the world. The seeds are viable because they are stored at a cold 4C.

The collection is looking for new and useful genetic variation.

Disease resistance, stress resistance, increased yield are some of the things that have been mentioned.

Some of the older varieties have been cross-bred with modern ones at John Innes.

Yellow rust is an important disease of wheat and it's been difficult to control.

There are new resistances to that disease in this collection of old wheats, which are being used by the breeders to defend wheat production.

The team wants to find wheat varieties that are more healthy.

Is there anything in the wheat? He says that they can increase the fibre and mineral content of wheat.

We think we can bring the diversity that hasn't been fully exploited by modern wheat breeders to them.

Scientists hope that looking back into our past and rediscovering lost varieties will be the best way to move forward.

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