Wheat genome decoded to enhance food security

University of Western Australia researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology have published the most comprehensive analysis of a wheat genome as part of a United Kingdom-led consortium.

The new sequencing of the bread wheat genome, led by the Earlham Institute, identified complete sets of genes and proteins essential to important agronomic traits.

According to The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, global crop yields must double by 2050 to meet future food security needs. Globally, wheat is one of the most important staple crops, providing a fifth of daily calories. Extensive knowledge of the wheat genome is needed to increase wheat yield in the future.

The most well-known genome project, The Human Genome Project, was completed in 2003 and   the genomes of many organisms, including some plants, have also been decoded. However, despite the agricultural importance of wheat, the large size and hexaploid structure of its genome has made it historically difficult to fully sequence its chromosomes.

“The wheat genome contains 17 billion bases – that’s five times the size of the human genome,” said Professor Harvey Millar from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, co-author of the study.

“The success of this research was based on new technologies that solved longstanding problems in determining the structure of wheat’s large hexaploid genome”.

The new genome assembly, published in the journal Genome Research, predicts a large number of previously unknown wheat genes and defines where they are located along chromosomes. The UWA researchers led the protein analysis research that provided direct evidence that many of these genes coded for molecular machinery important for wheat growth and development, protection of wheat from diseases and resistance to harsh environments.

“Evidence for over half of the predicted protein-coding genes in the new wheat genome assembly and annotation was found through our research” said Dr Owen Duncan from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, co-author of the study.

“This data helps researchers sift through the immense complexity of the wheat genome to identify which parts are playing an active role in the growth and development of wheat”.

Over one thousand wheat disease resistance genes and their locations in the genome were revealed by the study. The knowledge will greatly aid marker assisted breeding of wheat disease traits. Also identified were over one hundred gluten genes, the analysis of which will be vital to changing gluten content in wheat.

The collaboration combined advances in genome sequencing and assembly technology from researchers based in Norwich, England at the Earlham Institute and the John Innes Centre with leading protein mass spectrometry data from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at the University of Western Australia.

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