What's next for wheat breeding and genomics?

Mapping the wheat genome has been a major goal of scientists for decades. Getting it sequenced was a major accomplishment, but it wasn’t the end of the journey – it was, in reality, only opening the door so the journey could begin.

Curtis Pozniak, professor at the University of Saskatchewan and plant breeder with the Crop Development Centre (CDC), is one of the scientists at the forefront of wheat genome sequencing. I caught up to him at the Prairie Cereals Summit at Banff, Alta., to talk about what mapping the wheat genome sequence did and did not do, as well as where we go from here. We also talked about some other exciting tools, such as gene editing, and how all of these things will impact plant breeding in the future.

“A big part of sequencing is actually being able to put all of the sequence information back together. So when we’re sequencing think about it like a puzzle, and so what we do is we actually shatter the genome into these teeny tiny pieces, do the sequencing, then we have to put that back together in the right order along all 21 chromosomes of the wheat genome,’ Pozniak says.

Pozniak says the CDC played a key role in validating the puzzle building. “Our group was actually involved with the company called NRGene from Israel and they’ve developed a very nice computational technology to actually piece that information back together in the right way. Our group was heavily involved in making sure that that happened and then validating that.”

The mapping of the genome is a very good opportunity for the next generation of scientists to cut their teeth on significant, world-class research, Pozniak says.  The knowledge gained is already starting to generate discoveries that will benefit Canadian farmers. “One of our graduate students was involved in the publication of the wheat genome,” says Pozniak , “and he used that particular sequence that we developed to sequence some important genes for resistance to the wheat stem sawfly.”

In many ways, mapping the wheat genome is a bit like climbing a mountain and peering into the valley below. The opportunities are in the valley, but you have to climb the mountain first or the valley will remain hidden. Pozniak and his team are just now starting to explore some of those opportunities including the Ten Plus Genome Project. “The idea there is to actually take elite varieties from major breeding programs globally and sequence those so that we can truly capture all the genetic differences and diversity that’s available to wheat breeders.”

Hear the entire interview with Curtis Pozniak, of the Crop Development Centre, below.

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