Cracking wheat genome could help feed the world

By cracking the genetic code of wheat, scientists may have made a big step toward securing global food supplies.

The identification of around 96,000 wheat genes, and insights into the links between them, could lead to huge improvements in wheat varieties. They could become more productive, as well as better able to cope with disease, drought and other stresses that cause crop losses.

“Since 1980, the rate of increase in wheat yields has declined,” says Professor Keith Edwards of the University of Liverpool.

“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 is already being used by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to introduce more genetic variation into commercial cultivars.

It’s available freely at the European Nucleotide Archive, and will also help breeders make use of wild wheat’s untapped genetic reservoirs to improve tolerance to diseases and climate change.

“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,” says BBSRC chief executive Professor Douglas Kell.

“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.”