Scientists' landmark DNA study could help feed the world

A field of wheat at Aldborough. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

A field of wheat at Aldborough. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

Norwich crop scientists have contributed to a global DNA sequencing breakthrough which they claim could spark a "new era of wheat discovery" to help feed a growing world population.

Researchers from the John Innes Centre and Earlham Institute, both on the Norwich Research Park, were part of an international team which has sequenced the entire genomes of 15 wheat varieties from around the world.

The data, described as "the most comprehensive atlas of wheat genome sequences ever reported", will enable fellow scientists and breeders to much more quickly find  genes which influence greater yields, resistance to pests and diseases, or other valuable traits which can be incorporated into the crop varieties grown by farmers.

And those improvements will be vital for one of the world’s most cultivated cereal crops, as it is estimated wheat production must increase by more than 50pc by 2050 to meet an increasing global food demand.

“It’s like finding the missing pieces for your favourite puzzle that you have been working on for decades,” said project leader Curtis Pozniak, wheat breeder and director of the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan.

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At the John Innes Centre, the group led by Prof Cristobal Uauy collaborated on the study by defining blocks across the genomes called "haplotypes", an approach which he said "provides a powerful framework to increase the efficiency and precision of wheat breeding".

Wheat scientist Dr Cristobal Uauy at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Picture: Adrian Judd.

Wheat scientist Prof Cristobal Uauy at the John Innes Centre in Norwich - Credit: Archant

Prof Anthony Hall, head of plant genomics at the Earlham Institute and a leader of the 10+ Wheat Genomes collaboration, added: “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.

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“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 Project collaboration involved more than 95 scientists from universities and institutes in Canada, Switzerland, Germany, Japan, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Israel, Australia, and the USA.

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