Researchers unlock genetic blueprint of wheat, eye future changes to plant traits


WASHINGTON — The genetic blueprint of wheat has been deciphered for the first time, a discovery that researchers said Thursday could lead to improved plant breeding and protection against disease and drought.

Bread wheat is a leading staple for 30 percent of the global population, but unlocking its genetic secrets has been particularly difficult because its genome is five times the size of a human’s. The latest research means that the full sequencing of the wheat genome is now about three years away. Researchers focused on a cultivated wheat variety known as Chinese Spring (Triticum aestivum L.) They have produced a draft sequence of its genome, including the location of more than 124,000 genes, many of which relate to grain quality, pest resistance or stress tolerance. A team of French researchers has also mapped a complete bread wheat chromosome, known as 3B, leaving 20 more chromosomes to decipher.

“We have reached a great milestone in our roadmap,” said Catherine Feuillet, co-chair of the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC).

“We know now the way forward to obtain a reference sequence for the 20 remaining chromosomes and we hopefully will be able to find the resources to achieve this in the next three years.” Eduard Akhunov, associate professor of plant pathology at Kansas State University, described the work as “a very significant advancement for wheat genetics and breeding community.” Growers say the need for better strategies is crucial, because just as the world population is projected to reach nine billion by 2050, wheat production is falling due to a warming planet. Wheat production fell by 5.5 percent from 2000 to 2008, mainly due to hot, dry weather, said the study in the journal Science by researchers at the IWGSC. Meanwhile, growers need to boost production by 70 percent in the coming decades in order to meet the planet’s food needs.

“A rapid paradigm shift in science-based advances in wheat genetics and breeding, comparable to the first green revolution of the 1960s, will be essential to meet these challenges,” said the study. Wheat is the world’s third biggest crop after maize and rice. “Major diseases of wheat exist around the globe,” National Association of Wheat Growers research director Burleson Smith said in an email to AFP. “With information about the genome, researchers will be able to identify why some varieties and wild relatives are more tolerant of these pests, and pass these genes to more desirable commercial varieties in less time.”