The draft sequence of the Wheat Genome (Chinese Spring Wheat) has been released and researchers are eagerly looking forward to the possibilities of developing drought resistant, salinity resistant and pest resistant varieties of this important crop plant. Biotechwiz spoke to eminent Wheat Physiologist Dr. Matthew Reynolds from the CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) about this momentous development. Dr. Reynolds has been associated with Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel prize winner and agronomist whom most readers would know as ” the father of the Green Revolution” Dr. Borlaug was head of the Wheat Program at the CIMMYT.
The Interview with Dr. Reynolds is the first of two parts. The second part will be devoted exclusively to his role in the CIMMYT and the yeoman service this organization has carried out in taking the world closer to food security.
Biotechwiz presents excerpts from an exclusive interview with Dr. Matthew Reynolds, who has been intimately connected with improvement of Wheat strains, on the release of the draft sequence of the reference strain of the Chinese Spring Wheat:
Biotechwiz: You are described as a wheat physiologist. Can you elaborate on the nature of your work?
Dr. Matthew Reynolds: As wheat physiologist at CIMMYT the main task is to uncover ways to improve the ability of wheat to be more productive in a range of the environments from those with high yield -such as the Punjab- to those with heat and drought stress, with a special focus on developing countries. Activities encompass the following broad objectives: Through wide consultation define factors that limit current productivity; Develop breeding technologies through collaborative research encompassing novel and conventional approaches; Coordinate multidisciplinary elements of projects over different target countries thereby facilitating relevance and delivery of products; Lead a team of scientists and technicians in Mexico to address specific research objectives as well as human capacity development.
BW: The draft sequence of the genome of the Chinese Spring wheat has just been released. What, according to you, will be the most immediate benefit of this work?
Dr. Reynolds: There will be no immediate benefit as the job of sequencing must be completed thoroughly, however, the long term benefits will be that we can use genetic information to more precisely move useful physiological traits into good agronomic cultivars.
BW: You have spoken in earlier articles of the need to develop crops that will be more resistant to climate change. Do you think that the draft sequence will reveal sufficient data in order to be able to develop such plants or will we need to wait for the finished sequence?
Dr. Reynolds: It will most likely need to wait for the finished sequence.
BW: Breeders have reacted to the news saying they will be able to select for specific traits such as drought or salinity resistance using ‘Macro- assisted selection’. Can you tell us how they would carry out such selection and what does macro-assisted selection actually mean?
Dr. Reynolds: I have not heard of macro-assisted selection before. I assume it refers to whole genome selection, which is a way of taking into account the diversity of the whole genome as opposed to focusing on a few loci. Certainly complex traits like drought adaptation will benefit from considering the whole genome as their genetic basis is complex.
BW: Could you tell us a bit about the CIMMYT and the role you play in the organisation? Also will your organisation be working on developing newer strains of wheat using the sequence data that has become available?
Dr. Reynolds: CIMMYT -a member of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)- partners with hundreds of breeders worldwide and delivers new crop genotypes to developing countries on a large scale as freely available global public goods. The impact of this work on the livelihoods of resource-poor farmers in less developed countries is well documented. The value of the international wheat breeding effort coordinated by CIMMYT is estimated at several billion dollars of extra revenue annually, spread among millions of farmers. While the impact of the so called Green Revolution cultivars were initially in relatively favourable environments, subsequent breeding and dissemination effort has resulted in economic benefits in more marginal environments, including those affected by drought and heat stress. This breeding-evaluation-delivery pipeline encompasses the following elements: (i) free exchange of germplasm with national agricultural research services worldwide, (ii) a centralized breeding effort that focuses on generic needs –i.e. yield potential, yield stability, genetic resistance to range of biotic and abiotic stresses, consumer-oriented quality traits-, (iii) distribution of international nurseries targeted to a number of major wheat agro-ecosystems via national wheat programs in over 120 countries, (iv) analysis of international yield trials and global disease monitoring to ensure relevance of current local, regional and global breeding activities, (v) capacity building and training of research partners, (Reynolds and Borlaug, 2006; attached).
BW: Finally, would you like to speculate on the time-frame it is likely to take for the benefits of the sequence data to become obvious?
Dr. Reynolds: I was told it will take around 5 years to complete the project, then their will be a research phase, followed by application and breeding. Could be around 20 years before benefits are felt by farmers.