Scientists from the University of Liverpool, in collaboration with the University of Bristol and the John Innes Centre in Norfolk, have sequenced the entire wheat genome. They are now making the DNA data available to crop breeders to help them select key agricultural traits for breeding. The data is presently in a raw format, and will require further read-throughs and annotations, plus the assembly of the genetic data into chromosomes, before it can be fully applied. Using advanced genome sequencing platforms, however, the task isn’t as daunting as it might seem. While the sequencing of the human genome took 15 years to complete, the wheat genome has taken only a year. This is thanks in no small part to U Bristol’s next-generation genome analyzers, which can read DNA hundreds of times faster than the systems that were used to sequence the human genome.

“The wheat genome is five times larger than the human genome and presents a huge challenge for scientists,” said U Bristol’s Prof. Keith Edwards. “The genome sequences are an important tool for researchers and for plant breeders and by making the data publicly available we are ensuring this publicly funded research has the widest possible impact.”

The reference species used in the study was Chinese Spring wheat. The scientists hope that by understanding the genetic differences between varieties with different desirable traits, selective breeding can produce new types of wheat better able to withstand drought and salinity, and that provide higher yields. Perhaps we could even finally see the much-sought-after perennial wheat.

“It is predicted that within the next 40 years world food production will need to be increased by 50 per cent,” stated U Liverpool’s Dr. Anthony Hall. “Developing new, low input, high yielding varieties of wheat, will be fundamental to meeting these goals.”

The project is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.