Scientists finally crack the code of the wheat genome

The notoriously difficult wheat genome – the genetic blueprint of the plant – has finally been cracked by a leading team of scientists.

The International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC) published today (Friday, August 17) in the international journal Science a detailed description of the genome of bread wheat, the world’s most widely cultivated crop.

This work, according to the IWGSC, will pave the way for the production of wheat varieties better adapted to climate challenges, with higher yields, enhanced nutritional quality and improved sustainability.

The research article – authored by more than 200 scientists from 73 research institutions in 20 countries – presents the reference genome of the bread wheat variety Chinese Spring.

The DNA sequence ordered along the 21 wheat chromosomes is the highest-quality genome sequence produced to date for wheat. It is the result of 13 years of collaborative international research.

Wheat is the staple food of more than a third of the human population globally and accounts for nearly 20% of the total calories and protein consumed by humans worldwide, according to the science team.

This is more than any other single food source, making wheat a key crop for food security. It also serves as an important source of vitamins and minerals.

Following this breakthrough, the IWGSC expects that scientists will be able to identify more rapidly genes and regulatory elements underlying complex agronomic traits such as yield, grain quality, resistance to fungal diseases, and tolerance to abiotic stress – and produce hardier wheat varieties.

It is expected that the availability of a high-quality reference genome sequence will boost wheat improvement over the next decades, with benefits similar to those observed with maize and rice after their reference sequences were produced, the group added.

Complex

Sequencing the bread wheat genome was long considered an impossible task, due to its enormous size – some five times larger than the human genome.

Its complexity too has posed an oft-thought insurmountable task, as bread wheat has three sub-genomes – with more than 85% of the genome composed of repeated elements, just to add to the confusion.

Europe left out?

However, following last month’s ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) – which decided that gene-edited crops should be regulated in the same way as conventionally genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – it is unclear if benefits of such a finding will be reaped in the EU.

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