HONG KONG University is setting up a multi-national research centre which will be the first in the world to study China's vast wheat collection in detail. Wheat expert Harold Corke of the botany department said the mainland had agreed for the first time to allow access to its store of 40,000 different strains of the grass - one of the world's biggest collections. Chinese farmers needed to learn about quality as, with the opening of the market, consumers were allowed to buy foreign wheat for the first time and were becoming more selective. Although the US Midwest is known for its rolling fields of yellow wheat, China produces twice as much and is almost self-sufficient in the grain, growing 90 million tonnes of the 100 million it consumes each year. The co-ordination centre being formed at the university will enable scientists from China, the US and Hong Kong to study the genetic make-up of the grasses and work out which strains could be crossed to improve quality. Until now, Chinese breeders have carried out such studies by trial and error - growing the seed to produce the grain and testing the bread loaf produced from the wheat flour. This was time-consuming, and the accepted US quality standard based on how good a loaf the wheat produced was not necessarily useful in China, where most wheat was made into noodles, said Dr Corke. With equipment at HKU, the wheat's genetic make-up which determined its protein, fat and starch content could be assessed from a seedling leaf, he said. In the US, wheat quality was measured by the amount a bread loaf would rise during baking, and by the amount of flour produced during milling, which was affected by the thickness of the grain's cell walls. But in China, the cohesion of the flour during boiling was more important for noodle-making, he said. The genes along the length of the wheat DNA could be found using marker molecules and correlated with a known ''map'' of genes associated with oil, starch and protein content. This work would be led by his colleague, Sun Mei. The presence of certain genes in each strain therefore would indicate the quality of the grain that the plant would produce. Cross-breeding with US plants could improve quality. The university had spent about $1 million getting the expensive equipment needed to study the genes and two years training staff to run the centre. Now it wanted about $1 million to fund trips and joint research. Researchers from the collaborating Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Agricultural Sciences would be trained for between nine months and a year so they could take samples of the genetic material at their Chinese base and send it to the university for testing, said Dr Corke. Dr Corke and Dr Sun will visit Beijing in July to sign the agreement and meet the researchers.