The VRN3 gene controls seasonal changes in wheat and barley - leading to the diversity between spring and winter crops.
This year, a warm summer and widespread drought drove up wheat prices and left bakers struggling in the face of increased commodity costs but the US discovery could provide a future solution with climatic changes becoming less of a factor in production.
Now that researchers have isolated and reproduced the VRN3 gene it could be used to control flowering times and adapt the crops to different environments.
Winter wheat and barley are traditionally planted in the autumn but do not flower until after the very cold temperatures subside.
The spring varieties of the crops are used in parts of the world where very severe winters hinder the cereals' growth.
In the course of the study, geneticists implanted the VRN3 from the spring wheat, Hope, into that of a winter crop, causing it to flower prematurely.
Professor Jorge Dubcovsky, who led the research, said: "The VRN3 mutation we discovered in the wheat variety Hope can now be used to accelerate flowering time of other wheat varieties."
He continued: "The VRN3 molecular markers developed in the study will help breeders to detect the mutations present in their breeding lines and to study their effects on the adaptability of wheat and barley varieties to particular environments."
The 10 year study, carried out by scientists from the University of California and the US Department of Agriculture, is part of a project to understand the seasonal behaviour of wheat and barley.
Two years ago, scientists were able to clone the genes VRN1 and VRN2 which also control this biological mechanism in the plants.