A NEW genetic blueprint of bread wheat could aid efforts to feed an increasingly hungry world, experts believe. Scientists hope it will lead to crops that are better able to cope with pests, disease and drought.
The complex wheat genome was unscrambled by a British-led team of international researchers who analysed more than 90,000 genes.
By using new techniques of DNA sequencing, they were able to achieve in one year what would previously have taken decades.
Professor Neil Hall, from the University of Liverpool, lead author of the research published in the journal Nature, said: “Wheat is a large and complex genome, arguably the most complex genome to be sequenced to date.
“Although the genome has not been fully decoded, we now have instrumentation that can read DNA hundreds of times faster than the systems that were used to sequence the human genome. This technology can now be applied to other genomes previously considered to be too difficult for detailed genetic study, such as sugar cane, an important biofuel crop.”
The bread wheat genome is especially complex because bread wheat originated from three ancient grass species. Its genetic code is a composite of three genomes and five times bigger than the human genome. US co-author Professor Jan Dvorak, from the University of California at Davis, said: “This work moves us one step closer to a comprehensive and highly detailed genome sequence for bread wheat, which along with rice and maize is one of the three pillars on which the global food supply rests.
“The world’s population is projected to grow from seven billion to nine billion by 2050. It is clear that, with no new farmable land available to bring into cultivation, we must develop higher-yielding varieties of these three cereals to meet the growing global demand for food.”
To understand the wheat genes, their DNA was compared with that of grasses such as rice and barley whose genetic information is already known. Comparisons were also made with the simpler genomes of the ancestors of modern wheat.
Dr Anthony Hall from the University of Liverpool team said: “Understanding wheat’s genetic information and lining up its data into a form that crop breeders can use, will help develop wheat that has particular agricultural traits, such as disease resistance and drought tolerance.
“The identification of genetic markers in the genome will help breeders accelerate the wheat breeding process and integrate multiple traits in a single breeding programme. This research is contributing to ongoing work to tackle the problem of global food shortage.”
Professor Douglas Kell, chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council which provided funding for the project, said: “In the face of this year’s wheat crop losses, and worries over the impact on prices for consumers, this breakthrough in our understanding of the bread wheat genome could not have come at a better time.
“This modern strategy is a key component to supporting food security and gives breeders the tools to produce more robust varieties with higher yields.”