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Agricultural News

Researchers Unlock Wheat’s Potential, Announcing Success at Decoding Grain’s Massive Genome

Tue, 28 Aug 2018 11:19:15 CDT

Researchers Unlock Wheat’s Potential, Announcing Success at Decoding Grain’s Massive Genome Kansas State University scientists, in collaboration with the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium, announced this month its landmark scientific achievement of completing the entire reference genome sequence of bread wheat, the world's most widely cultivated crop.

According to K-State researchers, this work will pave the way for the production of wheat varieties better adapted to climate challenges, with higher yields, enhanced nutritional quality and improved sustainability. K-State News released an interview recently with Dr. John Fellers, research molecular biologist with the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and K-State Plant Pathology Department collaborator, who talked about the significance of this achievement and the impact it will have on the agricultural industry and global food security. You can listen to that complete interview by clicking or tapping the LISTEN BAR below at the bottom of the page.

“Some people would say, it’s almost an undertaking like going to the moon, as large as when we first started approaching this,” Fellers said, emphasizing the complexity of the work that has gone into this effort. “The wheat genome is huge… 17 billion letters of DNA and its wrapped up in 21 chromosomes. Trying to put all of this together has been a daunting task and we just haven’t had the technology or the computing power until the last few years to do this justice.”

Through the combined resources generated over 13 years and the use of classic physical mapping methods and the most recent DNA sequencing technologies; the sequence data were assembled and ordered with highly efficient algorithms, and dedicated software programs.

The sequence of the 21 chromosomes, includes the precise location of 107,891 genes and of more than 4 million molecular markers, as well as sequence information between the genes and markers containing the regulatory elements influencing the expression of genes. It is the highest-quality genome sequence produced to date for wheat. Sequencing the bread wheat genome was long considered an impossible task because of its enormous size - five times larger than the human genome - and complexity - bread wheat has three sub-genomes and more than 85 percent of the genome is composed of repeated elements.

A key crop for food security, wheat is the staple food of more than a third of the global human population and accounts for almost 20 percent of the total calories and protein consumed by humans worldwide, more than any other single food source. It also serves as an important source of vitamins and minerals.

To meet future demands of a projected world population of 9.6 billion by 2050, wheat productivity needs to increase by 1.6 percent each year. To preserve biodiversity, water and nutrient resources, the majority of this increase has to be achieved via crop and trait improvement on land currently cultivated, rather than committing new land to cultivation.

With the reference genome sequence now completed, breeders have at their fingertips new tools to address global challenges. They will be able to more rapidly identify genes and regulatory elements underlying complex agronomic traits such as yield, grain quality, resistance to fungal diseases and tolerance to physical stress - and produce hardier wheat varieties.

“When we first looked at this, we were looking at a $500 million to a billion-dollar project. People were telling us no you can’t do it. But, the Wheat Commission kept pushing this,” Fellers said, asserting that the significance of this discovery cannot be denied. “Now, it’s not some unimaginable thing. I can actually go to the computer and go find that piece of DNA I’m interested in and start to work with it.”

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.



Listen to USDA's John Fellers discuss this historic scientific achievement and its impact on the industry
right-click to download mp3


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