Different flour of wheat cereal in bakery bags.

Wheat is eaten by billions of people around the world. Image: Pearl PhotoPix/Shutterstock.com.

New insights will help the world protect future wheat supplies

Wheat is one of the most important crops on the planet - billions of people around the world depend on it for food.

Scientists working on protecting the crop for generations to come have put together the most comprehensive database of wheat genome sequences ever created.

An international team has sequenced the genomes for 16 wheat varieties from around the world. The results, published in Nature, provide the most comprehensive atlas of wheat genome sequences ever reported.

It will ultimately help to create wheat crops that can feed the world more efficiently - which is crucial as the planet's population continues to grow.

Scientists and wheat breeders will be able to identify influential wheat genes more quickly, allowing them to improve crop yields and increase pest resistance.

The 10+ Genome Project collaboration involved more than 95 scientists from universities and institutes in Canada, Switzerland, Germany, Japan, the U.K., Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Israel, Australia, and the U.S.

Museum Research Leader Professor Matt Clark, who worked on the study with Senior Bioinformatics Scientist Dr Luca Venturini says, 'This research has significant implications for future global food security. Wheat is one of the world's most widely cultivated crops and billions of people around the world depend on it.

'We know production will need to increase dramatically to continue to feed the world and, at the same time, this vital food source must also adapt to the effects of climate change.

'This study will allow breeders to better select traits to improve yield and harness genetic immunity to pathogens to reduce the need for pesticides which can have devastating effects on wider ecosystems and environments.'

A close up image of a ear of wheat

Wheat has been changing for millenia - ever since humans started to farm

The importance of wheat

Wheat has been changing for millennia. Humans have been adjusting the crop ever since we developed agriculture,  seeking to improve harvests. Over time, we have created wheat that tastes and grows better.

But selective breeding has also resulted in the loss of genetic diversity. This means most of the wheat crops grown now are more similar to each other than their wild relatives are, reducing their ability to adapt and decreasing their resilience to new diseases. If wheat crops were devastated by a disease, it would seriously threaten global food supplies.

The first annotated wheat reference genome was sequenced in 2018, and it was big step towards solving wheat's genetic problem. Once you have the genome, it means you can more easily design the markers that enable you to breed better crops, that are bountiful, disease resistant and able to thrive in soil without fertilisers.

That work has never been more urgent, with estimates that wheat production must increase by more than 50% by 2050 to meet an increasing global demand.

Scientific groups across the global wheat community are expected to use this new resource to identify genes linked to in-demand traits, which will accelerate breeding efficiency.

Professor Anthony Hall is Head of Plant Genomics at the Earlham Institute, a research institute in Norwich focusing on the development of genomics and computational biology.

He says: 'Knowing the sequence of these genomes allows us to use wheat as a model crop species, in the same way we use rice and maize, and changes the way research and breeding can be done.

'It allows us to understand how breeding histories have shaped this complex genome, address fundamental questions about evolution and selection, and rapidly identify markers associated with genes controlling key agricultural traits.'

The 10+ Genome study represents the start of a larger effort to generate thousands of genome sequences of wheat, including genetic material brought in from wheat’s wild relatives. And the 10+ Genome Project was sanctioned as a top priority by the Wheat Initiative, a coordinating body of international wheat researchers.