U.K. scientists see wheat genome breakthrough

by Josh Sosland
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LIVERPOOL, U.K. — British scientists said on Aug. 27 they have decoded the genome of wheat, a step they said will facilitate the development of new wheat breeds with enhanced traits such as disease resistance, drought tolerance and yield.

University of Liverpool scientists, in collaboration with scientists at the University of Bristol and the John Innes Center, have sequenced the entire wheat genome and will make the DNA data available to crop breeders in their work seeking key agricultural traits for breeding.

“Sequencing the human genome took 15 years to complete, but with huge advances in DNA technology, the wheat genome took only a year,” said Neil Hall, a profesor in the Institute of Integrative Biology. “The information we have collected will be invaluable in tackling the problem of global food shortage. We are now working to analyze the sequence to highlight natural genetic variation between wheat types, which will help significantly speed up the current program.”

The announcement of the breakthrough came six months after the University of Liverpool said it has been awarded £1.7 million to decode the genome in wheat, noting that more than 550 million tonnes of bread wheat is harvested each year.

“Wheat breeders have few genetic tools to help them in selecting key agricultural traits for breeding and do not always know the genes responsible for the trait they need,” the University said in February. At the time, the school predicted the project would take a year to complete.

“It is predicted that within the next 40 years world food production will need to be increased by 50%,” Anthony Hall, another researcher said Aug. 27. “Developing new, low input, high yielding varieties of wheat will be fundamental to meeting these goals. Using this new DNA data we will identify variation in gene networks involved in important agricultural traits.”

The news was greeted with great interest among wheat breeders in the United States.

“A quality wheat genome map could potentially help in our efforts to bring better wheat varieties to farmers,” a prominent breeder said.

Evaluating details of this research in the days to come will be key, the breeder said.

“A map of the wheat genome is an excellent tool for researchers, especially when we look to make gains in breeding,” the breeder said. “Think of it as trying to navigate to a location with a globe versus a map. A globe isn’t going to be much help if you’re trying to find your way to a specific location in any given city. A map of the state would be some help, but what you really need is a map of the specific city and route. The better your map, the faster you’ll get to your destination.”

The degree to which the researchers findings are more of a map than a globe is what will be evaluated, the breeder added.

The announcement followed by 10 years what in 2000 was called a major milestone for genetics, completion of the first plant genome sequence. The plant which was the object of the study, Arabidopsis thaliana (thale cress), is a weed that often grows in garden paths and walls. The project was completed in four years.

Arabidopsis was selected as the subject of the study because its entire genome consists of a relatively small set of genes that dictate when the weed will bud, bloom, sleep or seed.
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