After a massive international effort involving over 200 scientists across 20 countries, the entire wheat genome has finally been sequenced. Described as a "Herculean challenge," the wheat genome is known to be five times larger than its human counterpart and exponentially more complex. The landmark human achievement is hoped to lead to more efficient wheat breeding and production of crops.
Wheat is arguably one of the most important human food crops in the world today, contributing to around 20 percent of all the calories we collectively consume, and providing more protein to the world's population than meat. Understanding its genome is of great value in better guiding selective breeding of varieties that can enhance yields and help our food growers adapt to a rapidly changing climate.
Despite initially compiling the raw genomic data almost a decade ago, the scale and complexity of the wheat genome has proved a challenge in accurately assembling that data into applicable chromosomes. The final results, recently published in the prestigious journal Science, outlines a sequence of 21 chromosomes, including more than 4 million molecular markers, and well over 100,000 specifically located genes.
"Genomic knowledge of other crops has driven progress in selecting and breeding important traits," explains Cristobal Uauy, a geneticist from the John Innes Center working on the research. "Tackling the colossal wheat genome has been a Herculean challenge, but completing this work means we can identify genes controlling traits of interest more rapidly. This will facilitate and make more effective the breeding for traits like drought or disease resistance. Where previously we had a broad view and could spot areas of interest, we can now zoom into the detail on the map."
An example of an outcome from this impressive breakthrough has already come from research led by a team from Australia's Murdoch University. This work set out to utilize the wheat genome data by examining proteins with a known connection to coeliac disease and other wheat allergies, then mapping the specific location of those proteins on the wheat genome.
"Understanding the genetic variability and environmental stability of wheat will help food producers to grow low allergen food that could be used as a safe and healthy alternative to complete wheat avoidance," says Angéla Juhász, co-lead on the low-allergy wheat research.
Another piece of research accompanying the explicitly detailed genomic sequence is a set of annotations designed to help target which genes directly affect specific traits. This work will help accelerate improvements in wheat crops resulting in a more effective breeding arsenal to help feed a growing population.
"The genome is really a tool that allows us to address the challenges around food security and environmental change," says Ricardo Ramirez-Gonzalez, lead author on the accompanying annotated article. "We believe that we can boost wheat improvement in the next few years in the same way that rice and maize were refined after their sequences were completed."
The landmark research was published in the journal Science.
Source: John Innes Center
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