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Major Breakthrough in Deciphering Bread Wheat's Genetic Code

Published: Thursday, November 29, 2012
Last Updated: Thursday, November 29, 2012
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UK, German and US scientists decipher complex genetic code to create new tools for breeders and researchers across the world.

Scientists, including Professor Keith Edwards and Dr Gary Barker from the University of Bristol, have unlocked key components of the genetic code of one of the world’s most important crops. The first analysis of the complex and exceptionally large bread wheat genome, published today in Nature, is a major breakthrough in breeding wheat varieties that are more productive and better able to cope with disease, drought and other stresses that cause crop losses.

The identification of around 96,000 wheat genes, and insights into the links between them, lays strong foundations for accelerating wheat improvement through advanced molecular breeding and genetic engineering. The research contributes to directly improving food security by facilitating new approaches to wheat crop improvement that will accelerate the production of new wheat varieties and stimulate new research. The analysis comes just two years after UK researchers finished generating the sequence.

The project was led by Neil Hall, Mike Bevan, Keith Edwards, Klaus Mayer, from the University of Liverpool, the John Innes Centre, the University of Bristol, and the Institute of Bioinformatics and Systems Biology, Helmholtz-Zentrum, Munich, respectively, and Anthony Hall at the University of Liverpool.  W. Richard McCombie at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and Jan Dvorak at the Univerisity of California, Davis, led the US contribution to the project.

The team sifted through vast amounts of DNA sequence data, effectively translating the sequence into something that scientists and plant breeders can use effectively. All of their data and analyses were freely available to users world-wide.

Professor Keith Edwards said: “Since 1980, the rate of increase in wheat yields has declined. Analysis of the wheat genome sequence data provides a new and very powerful foundation for breeding future generations of wheat more quickly and more precisely, to help address this problem.”

The analysis is already being used in research funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to introduce a wider range of genetic variation into commercial cultivars and make use of wild wheat’s untapped genetic reservoirs that could help improve tolerance to diseases and the effects of climate change. The wheat breeding community and seed suppliers have welcomed the research.

The sequence data has been deposited at the European Nucleotide Archive and is also available from databases in the UK and Germany.

Researchers from the European Bioinformatics Institute, Kansas State University, and the United Sates Department of Agriculture were also vital to the project’s success. The research was possible thanks to major funding was form the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the EU and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: “In the face of this year’s wheat crop losses, and worries over the impact on prices for consumers, this breakthrough in our understanding of the bread wheat genome could not have come at a better time. This modern strategy is a key component to supporting food security and gives breeders the tools to produce more robust varieties with higher yields. It will help to identify the best genetic sequences for use in breeding programmes.”

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science said: “This groundbreaking research is testament to the excellence of Britain’s science base and demonstrates the capability we want to build on through the agri-tech strategy currently being developed.  The findings will help us feed a growing global population by speeding up the development of new varieties of wheat able to cope with the challenges faced by farmers worldwide.”

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