Cracked: Sequenced Wheat Genome Provides Road Map for Future Yield Gains

Newly available DNA information will make it easier for wheat breeders to isolate desirable traits. Image Wheat by David Monniaux licensed under a CC3.0 agreement.


In a world-first, a ground-breaking, thirteen-year global research project has recently culminated, producing a full reference sequence for the wheat variety Chinese Spring.

Developing a complete and accurate road map of genes and molecular markers is a significant step for breeders to develop more resilient and productive varieties.

Wheat is the staple food for more than a third of the world, and with the global population expected to be 9 billion by 2050, gains in production are required to meet the increases in demand.

In addition to the requirement to produce more food, wheat needs to become more resilient to climate change conditions, such as changes in weather patterns. Global wheat production actually declined by 5.5% between 2000 and 2008, largely due to the effects of climate change.

The sequence provides wheat breeders with information about the location of specific genes within the genome, allowing them to isolate the genes responsible for desired attributes. This allows breeders to manipulate wheat genetics to ‘switch on’ the desired traits including yield, resistance to pests and diseases, and resistance to environmental factors such as drought and salinity.

“Genome data makes genetic research quicker and broadens its scope,” said Dr James Edwards, a wheat breeder at Australian Grain Technologies.

“If we find a variety with resistance to a particular disease, we can isolate the gene responsible for it. It replaces a very hit and miss approach to identifying specific genetic traits.”

While the availability of the genome data doesn’t change the focus for wheat breeders, it could open the door for the identification of additional beneficial traits.

“Our research will continue to work on everything that’s important to Australian growers – grain yield, end-use quality, disease resistance and abiotic stress tolerance, but it also opens opportunities for niche traits that we haven’t thought of until now.”

Mapping the genome was an exceptionally complex task as wheat has five times as many genes as humans. The project took a global team of 73 organisations 13 years to complete, under the leadership of the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC). Mapping included the identification and location of more than 107,891 genes and more than 47 million molecular markers across 21 chromosomes.

The Green Revolution

The completion of the wheat genome mapping project potentially represents the biggest advance for wheat performance since the work of Agronomist Norman Borlaug in the 1940s. Borlaug lead a team of researchers to develop short, high yielding and disease resistant wheat varieties that lead to the most significant gains in wheat production to date.

Subsequently, Mexico, where the research was based, became a net exporter of wheat by 1963, and yields almost doubled in India and Pakistan between 1965 and 1970. Some estimates suggest that these advances in wheat production saved up to 600 million lives, others place the figure as high as one billion.

Borlaug went on to apply his method of agronomic trials to improve the performance of wheat and rice crops in Asian countries. For his contributions, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Sources: Harry Potter and the Gigantic Genome, Wheat Genome, Two (Totally Opposite) Ways to Save the Planet, Norman Borlaug

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