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Major breakthrough in deciphering bread wheat's genetic code

1st December 2012

Scientists have unlocked key components of the genetic code for one of the world's most important crops. This first analysis of the complex and exceptionally large bread wheat genome is a major step towards breeding varieties that are more productive – better able to cope with disease, drought and other stresses.


bread wheat fields


The identification of 96,000 wheat genes – and insights into the links between them – lays strong foundations for accelerating wheat improvement through advanced molecular breeding and genetic engineering. This research contributes directly to improving food security by facilitating new approaches to wheat crop improvement that will accelerate production of new varieties and stimulate further research. It comes just two years after UK researchers finished generating the sequence.

The project involved a collaboration between US, UK and German universities. The team sifted through vast amounts of DNA sequence data, effectively translating the sequence into something that scientists and plant breeders can use effectively. All of their data and analyses were freely available to users worldwide.

Professor Keith Edwards, University of Liverpool: "Since 1980, the rate of increase in wheat yields has declined. Analysis of the wheat genome sequence data provides a new and very powerful foundation for breeding future generations of wheat more quickly and more precisely, to help address this problem."

The analysis – published in Nature – is already being used in research to introduce a wider range of genetic variation into commercial cultivars and make use of wild wheat's untapped genetic reservoirs that could help improve tolerance to diseases and the effects of climate change. The wheat breeding community and seed suppliers have welcomed the research, made possible thanks to major funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the EU and the National Science Foundation (NSF).




Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: "In the face of this year's wheat crop losses, and worries over the impact on prices for consumers, this breakthrough in our understanding of the bread wheat genome could not have come at a better time. This modern strategy is a key component to supporting food security and gives breeders the tools to produce more robust varieties with higher yields. It will help to identify the best genetic sequences for use in breeding programmes."

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science said: "This groundbreaking research is testament to the excellence of Britain's science base and demonstrates the capability we want to build on through the agri-tech strategy currently being developed. The findings will help us feed a growing global population by speeding up the development of new varieties of wheat able to cope with the challenges faced by farmers worldwide."


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