Sequencing the wheat genome to help feed the world


MANHATTAN — Jesse Poland, Kansas State University assistant professor and assistant director of the Wheat Genetics Resource Center, in collaboration with the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium, has announced the production of an improved whole genome assembly of bread wheat, the most widely grown cereal in the world.

Using NRGene’s DeNovaMAGICTM software and Illumina’s sequencing data for assembly, the team is well on its way to sequencing the bread wheat variety Chinese Spring. A high quality whole genome reference sequence — a complete map of the entire genetic make-up from one end of the chromosome to the other, for all 21 bread wheat chromosome pairs — is less than two years away, and will dramatically accelerate global research into crop improvement of the world’s most staple crop.

The public-private collaborative project is coordinated by the IWGSC and led by Poland, Nils Stein of IPK Gatersleben in Germany, Curtis Pozniak of the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre in Canada, and Andrew Sharpe of the Global Institute for Food Security in Canada. Project participants also include researchers from Illumina, Inc.; NRGene in Israel and the United States; Tel Aviv University in Israel; and the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA).

“This improved assembly of the wheat genome is an excellent resource to move forward with genomics assisted breeding,” said Poland. “With wheat being such an important crop for Kansas, projects like this will continue to enable our world-class research efforts in wheat at KSU to understand the wheat genome and produce better varieties.”

To understand the significance, it is important to understand why sequencing the wheat genome continues to be such a massive undertaking. The wheat genome itself is huge, with a total of 16 billion base pairs of DNA — especially compared to other significant staple crops like rice and corn, which have 430 million and 2.5 billion respectively. Building a full reference sequence with that many pieces has traditionally been virtually impossible.

“Having the whole genome sequence is like providing an instructional manual for building better plants. Until now, the pages in the manual were out of order and 40 percent of them were missing,” Poland says. “Having a complete manual, with everything in the right order, will allow us to quickly identify genes responsible for traits such as pest resistance, yield and quality. With this genomic information we could potentially make the breeding cycle two to three times faster, and bring better varieties to farmers in a fraction of the time.”

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