Scientists at Liverpool, University of Bristol and the John Innes centre have released the draft sequence of the entire wheat genome. They were working in collaboration with the International Wheat Genome Consortium. This research has been funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. The work was carried out at the University’s Centre for Genomic Research, which is home to 5 next generation analyzers that can read sequences 100 times faster than those used to sequence the human genome!
This work has been received with great excitement and is expected to help wheat breeders to be able to select for strains of Wheat having desired characteristics. The reference variety used for the sequencing is the Chinese Spring Wheat (Triticum aestivum L. cv Chinese Spring) Strain. The availability of this sequence is expected to highlight natural Genetic variants between wheat types to help breeding programs. Wheat breeders have had precious little genetic information in the past to be able to make a choice as to the variety of wheat to be selected.
The sheer size of the wheat genome has been daunting in terms of whole genome sequencing. The Wheat genome is about five times the size of the human genome and hence was considered close to impossible to sequence. In Comparison to other important crop plants such as Soyabean and Rice, the difficulty of working with such a large genome has left wheat lagging behind in the race of genome sequencing. However, using advanced sequencing techniques employed by Roche’s 454 sequencers, the effort has managed to cover about 95% of the known wheat genes. The results of the study are now available for public use via Genbank, EMBL and CerealsDB. Nevertheless, there are those who warn that the gene map is far from complete and that the first high quality complete map data will be available only within five years. The full sequenced genome requires further read-throughs, assembly of the data into chromosomes and significant work to fully annotate the sequence data.
According to Dr. Neil Hall of the University of Bristol, within the next 40 years the food production should be increased by at 50 % of the current value. This can only be achieved if we are able to produce wheat strains resistant to drought conditions, pesticides and salinity. Traditional methods require time consuming crosses and painstaking selection of desired characteristics sometimes after several generations. The use of genetic techniques would hopefully reduce the time frame and enable the breeder to efficiently select desired traits. These traits may include disease resistance, the ability to grow under extremes of whether and soil characteristics, & producing increased yields with minimum inputs in terms of fertilizers and other growth factors.
Wheat is one of the most important food crops around the world (though most of the wheat produces is what is known as red wheat and not the one that has been used for the study) with an estimated annual production close to 550 million tonnes. Mike Bevan of the John Innes institute has placed emphasis on the importance of the study in the light of a sharp spike in the international prices of wheat following a ban on wheat exports by Russia (due to droughts and wildfires) and the overall decrease in wheat production by countries such as Pakistan and China due to heavy rains and floods.
The wheat genome holds secrets aplenty waiting to be unlocked. We are racing against time as far as food security is concerned and any step forward is all for the best. We are waiting eagerly for the promise to be fulfilled and for the time when wheat breeders can easily and quickly select varieties that will pave the way for the next revolution. Countries like India that are struggling to meet the demands of burgeoning populations and where cultivable land is at a premium are sure to benefit from this research.