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Landmark study generates first genomic atlas for global wheat diversity

UK researchers from the Natural History Museum, Earlham Institute and John Innes Centre have contributed to an international study which has sequences genomes of 16 wheat varieties around the world.

In a landmark discovery for global wheat production and future global food security, an international team has sequenced the genomes for 16 wheat varieties representing breeding programs around the world, enabling scientists and breeders to much more quickly identify influential genes for improved yield, pest resistance and other important crop traits.

The results of the University of Saskatchewan-led research, just published in Nature, provide the most comprehensive atlas of wheat genome sequences ever reported. 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.

Natural History 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.”

Professor Anthony Hall, Head of Plant Genomics at the Earlham Institute, says: “We have generated genomes for important wheat varieties from across the globe. 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.”

Director of the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre (CDC) and project leader Curtis Pozniak says: “It’s like finding the missing pieces for your favourite puzzle that you have been working on for decades, By having many complete gene assemblies available, we can now help solve the huge puzzle that is the massive wheat pan-genome and usher in a new era for wheat discovery and breeding.

Now we have increased the number of wheat genome sequences more than 10-fold, enabling us to identify genetic differences between wheat lines that are important for breeding. We can compare and contrast the full complement of the genetic differences that make each variety unique.”

Scientific groups across the global wheat community are expected to use the new resource to identify genes linked to in-demand traits, which will accelerate breeding efficiency. Improving yield has never been more urgent with estimates that wheat production must increase by more than 50 per cent by 2050 to meet an increasing global demand.

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. 

The research team was able to track the unique DNA signatures of genetic material incorporated into modern cultivars from several of wheat’s undomesticated relatives by breeders over the century. These wheat relatives can be used by breeders to improve disease resistance and stress resistance of wheat – selecting key traits more efficiently using a simple DNA test.

The 10+ Genome Project was sanctioned as a top priority by the Wheat Initiative, a coordinating body of international wheat researchers.

This project is an excellent example of co-ordination across leading research groups around the globe.  Essentially every group working in wheat gene discovery, gene analysis and deployment of molecular breeding technologies will use the resource,” said Wheat Initiative Scientific Coordinator Peter Langridge.

A list of international funding partners is available here:  http://www.10wheatgenomes.com/funders/

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Notes for editors

Natural History Media contact: Tel: +44 (0)20 7942 5654/ (0)779 969 0151 Email: press@nhm.ac.uk

About the Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research centre and the most-visited natural history museum in Europe. With a vision of a future in which both people and the planet thrive, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing humanity’s needs with those of the natural world.

It is custodian of one of the world’s most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens. The scale of this collection enables researchers from all over the world to document how species have and continue to respond to environmental changes - which is vital in helping predict what might happen in the future and informing future policies and plans to help the planet.

The Museum’s 300 scientists continue to represent one of the largest groups in the world studying and enabling research into every aspect of the natural world. Their science is contributing critical data to help the global fight to save the future of the planet from the major threats of climate change and biodiversity loss through to finding solutions such as the sustainable extraction of natural resources.

The Museum uses its enormous global reach and influence to meet its mission to create advocates for the planet - to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome over five million visitors each year; our digital output reaches hundreds of thousands of people in over 200 countries each month and our touring exhibitions have been seen by around 30 million people in the last 10 years.

About Earlham Institute
The Earlham Institute (EI) is a world-leading research Institute focusing on the development of genomics and computational biology. EI is based within the Norwich Research Park and is one of eight institutes that receive strategic funding from Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC) - £5.43m in 2017/18 - as well as support from other research funders. EI operates a National Capability to promote the application of genomics and bioinformatics to advance bioscience research and innovation.

EI offers a state-of-the-art DNA sequencing facility, unique by its operation of multiple complementary technologies for data generation. The Institute is a UK hub for innovative bioinformatics through research, analysis and interpretation of multiple, complex data sets. It hosts one of the largest computing hardware facilities dedicated to life science research in Europe. It is also actively involved in developing novel platforms to provide access to computational tools and processing capacity for multiple academic and industrial users and promoting applications of computational Bioscience. Additionally, the Institute offers a training programme through courses and workshops, and an outreach programme targeting key stakeholders, and wider public audiences through dialogue and science communication activities.

About the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre (CDC)
The Crop Development Centre in the USask College of Agriculture and Bioresources is known for research excellence in developing high-performing crop varieties and developing genomic resources and tools to support breeding programs.  Its program is unique in that basic research is fully integrated into applied breeding to improve existing crops, create new uses for traditional crops, and develop new crops. The CDC has developed more than 400 commercialized crop varieties.