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THE INTERNATIONAL Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium has completed a ten-year study of the wheat genome, on other words, its cellular blueprint. This research and the blueprint’s benefits to world food supplies are discussed in the August 17, 2018, issue of Science, the weekly magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Details are given in Detailed Genome Maps Paths to Better Wheat, by Elizabeth Pennisi. Here are some nutritious tidbits gleaned from this article.
Natural breeding of ancient grasses was taking place many thousands of years ago and evolved into today’s durum wheat used in pasta. “That hybrid,” Elizabeth Pennisi notes, “was mated with yet another grass to yield the grain that makes everything from bread to beer all over the world.”
“Plant breeders,” she writes, “vastly increased wheat yields during the Green Revolution of the 1960s, but since then efforts to improve the crop through traditional breeding or genetic technology have been painstakingly slow because of the fiendish complexity of its genome.”
The wheat genome has more than five times the complexity of the human one. The Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium of academic and industrial researchers from 20 countries was highly successful, Pennisi observes: “Wheat geneticists say the newly finished genome, which pinpoints 107,000 genes on the 21 chromosomes of bread wheat, has transformed their research….”
Benefits of the WGSC have already been identified. “What took us years in the past now takes us one night,” says Jorge Dubcovsky of the University of California, Davis, who recently found a new gene for wheat height, “It’s like walking with a Google map.”
Pennisi notes, “Already the new genome has helped plant geneticists from the John Innes Center in Norwich, U.K., to boost grain size by 20 percent in lab-grown wheat.”
Important in such gene editing is the CRISPR process, sort of a molecular scissoring, its name derived from Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats of DNA.
As another potential example of wheat enhancement, Pennisi notes that “… commonly planted varieties won’t sprout unless the seeds have overwintered in the ground. Last year, plant geneticist Antje Rohde, now at BASF [Badische Anilin und Soda Fabrik] in Ghent, Belgium, reported her team had pinned down a key gene responsible for the sprouting delay. By disabling that gene using CRISPR, the team hopes to shorten the wheat breeding cycle.”
Combating drought and pests is another goal of wheat genome research. Pennisi writes that researchers “took 850 snapshots of messenger RNA levels to gauge which genes are active under conditions including drought, pest attack, and other kinds of stress….” For example, Canadian researchers at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, have identified a gene that makes wheat stems more stiff, and hence more resistant to sawflies, stem-boring insect pests.
Help for the gluten-intolerant is another potential benefit. Plant researchers at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences identified 365 wheat genes that stimulate an immune or allergic response. Pennisi notes, “The data could help breeders aim for less problematic wheat.”
Consortium co-founder Catherine Feuillet says, “For the first time, people working in wheat have the quality of resources that people have in other crops. We now have the tools to do [breeding] in a knowledge-based way.”
Researchers are now following a path similar to the natural breeding of those two grasses many thousands of years ago. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018