Wheat School: Wheat genome map a vital new tool, but scientists are still the heart of wheat breeding


Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC) at Lethbridge, Alta., is a big sprawling facility that does a wide variety of research. That being said, they are particularly known for their wheat research, and for good reason. They do innovative work, and the research team has bred many stalwart wheat varieties for Canadian farmers.

In this episode of the Wheat School, RealAgriculture’s Dale Leftwich speaks with Dr. Harpinder Randhawa, an AAFC Lethbridge scientist who specializes in wheat research. Randhawa talks about the recently mapped wheat genome and how this sequencing will affect his work, and the work of other scientists.

The words genotyping and phenotyping are thrown around a lot in plant breeding. Randhawa explains the difference. Genotype refers to the actual DNA make up of the plant, and phenotype is what the plant looks like and how genes are expressed. The mapping of the genome improves our ability to do genotyping and make phenotyping more accurate. (Story continues after video)

Randhawa says sequencing the genome provides the roadmap for all of the genes. Scientists have been using genetic markers for some time, but with this map they can be more confident that the markers are truly representing the target genes. The change is a little bit like at first having a general idea where your aunt lives and then having the actual address of her house. Randhawa says”Before we were using markers that we may be close to, or in the vicinity of those genes.”

This makes the entire wheat breeding process much more efficient. Having the map of the genome increases the scientist’s ability to predict what they will see in the field. This means that underperforming cultivars can be discarded much earlier, and new, potentially superior lines can be added sooner. Randhawa says, “This way instead of selecting in late generations based on phenotypic data (what the plant looks like) we can pinpoint and select for desirable traits right from the beginning, right from the F1 using a tiny piece of leaf or DNA.”

Although sequencing the wheat genome will bring about vast improvements in efficiency and predictability, scientists will still be out in the field assessing how the new cultivars react to environmental conditions and management practices. As Randhawa says. “Phenotyping is still the king. We still have to test all these genetic markers, then we validate them in the field.”

More Wheat Schools are available here.

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