Wheat Genome Mapping Project Celebrates Breakthrough


An international group of scientists working on mapping the genetic code for wheat say they’ve reached a major milestone that will help them reach their goal several years earlier than expected.

The International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium project, which is co-led by two Canadians and partly funded by Canadian farmers, announced yesterday it has produced a whole genome assembly for a bread wheat variety known as “Chinese Spring”.

“This new wheat genome sequence is an important contribution to understanding the genetic blueprint of one of the world’s most important crops,” said Curtis Pozniak, a plant scientist at the University of Saskatchewan. “It will provide wheat researchers with an exciting new resource to identify the most influential genes for wheat adaptation, stress response, pest resistance and improved yield.”

Using a combination of advanced software and bioinformatics tools from from genomics companies in Israel and the U.S., researchers were able to “look at virtually the entire wheat genome.” This new information will build on the consortium’s other work studying one chromosome at a time, creating a high-quality, ordered sequence for wheat breeders that specifically locates genes and markers along the chromosomes.

“Imagine that you have a blueprint for the order of important pieces of the wheat genome puzzle. With that information, it becomes far easier to assemble the puzzle more quickly into new and improved varieties,” said Pozniak. “But this sequence is just the first step. There is still much work to do to define the function of each of the genetic pieces so that breeders can identify the very best genes in the gene pool.”

The group now expects to have the complete picture of the wheat genome puzzle and how its 17 billion base pairs are ordered within two years. Given that the wheat genome is five times the size of the human genome, earlier estimates suggested this would take four or five more years.

“We have been waiting for a number of years to have a high quality whole genome sequence assembly that would complement our chromosome-based strategy and accelerate the delivery of the sequence,” said consortium executive director Kellye Eversole. “This assembly comes exactly at the right time because it can be integrated with the IWGSC chromosome specific resources developed over the past 10 years to deliver a high quality reference sequence for the wheat genome in less than two years.”

While this initial work was done on Chinese Spring bread wheat, Pozniak says the knowledge will serve as a backbone for unlocking the genetic blueprint for traits in other varieties as well.

The entire genome assembly project is co-led by Pozniak, Andrew Sharpe of the Global Institute for Food Security in Canada, Nils Stein of IPK Gatersleben in Germany, and Jesse Poland of Kansas State University in the United States. Other participants include researchers from California-based genetic sequencing tech company Illumina, Inc., genomic software company NRGene in Israel and the United States, Tel Aviv University in Israel, and the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA).

Funding for this research came from Genome Canada, Genome Prairie, Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, the Saskatchewan and Alberta Wheat Development Commissions, and the Western Grains Research Foundation through the Canadian Triticum Applied Genomics (CTAG2) project, Kansas State University through the US National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Program, and Illumina, Inc.

Related: Farm Groups Contributing $3.6 Million to Wheat Breeding Efficiency Project

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