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Sugar Beet Genome Sequenced, Human Impact on Species Noted

Sugar beet

Sugar beet (Agricultural Research Service/USDA)

Geneticists and computer scientists in Germany, Spain, and Sweden sequenced the genome of the sugar beet, a plant contributing a large segment of the world’s sugar production. The study offers an analytical reference for advances in biotechnology with implications for agriculture and renewable energy.

The team led by biology professor Bernd Weisshaar at Bielefeld University in Germany and  Heinz Himmelbauer, director of the Genomics Unit at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain published its findings earlier this week online in the journal Nature.

Sugar beet (Beta vulgaris), according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, is the source of 20 percent of world’s sugar supply, with the remainder derived from sugar cane. While sugar cane grows largely in tropical climates, beet sugar is grown in temperate climates. The species is grown in 14 states in the U.S., with Minnesota and North Dakota the leading producers, making up about a third of the total.

Sugar beet, say the authors, is a recently domesticated crop, with lines accumulating sugar in their roots cross-bred with chard and fodder beets in the 18th century. It is the first species in the order Caryophyllales that includes commercial crops such as spinach and quinoa, as well as desert plants including cactus, to have its genome sequenced.

The researchers performed a high-throughput sequencing of DNA from the genomes of  primary sugar beet lines, as well as four related sugar beet lines, to get a fuller picture of variations within the species. The team also sequenced genetic material from a wild beet ancestor and spinach, a related Caryophyllales species. Systems from Roche, Illumina, and Applied Biosystems were used for genomic sequencing and assembly.

The analysis yielded 27,421 protein-coding genes in the sugar beet’s genome. The data also enabled the researchers to trace the genomic development of sugar beets from its wild beet ancestor and discriminate the species from others in the Caryophyllales order, spinach in this case. With the results, the team was able to identify some 7 million variant positions throughout the reference genome.

The researchers also discovered these variations were not uniformly distributed, ranging from regions of high to very low variation. The authors attribute the areas of low variation in part to human intervention, selecting and breeding desired properties of sugar beets.

The results are expected to provide a base line for further genomic studies of sugar beets to better understand its properties, as well as customize the crop through biotechnology for the production of sugar and other products. Among those other products are biofuels. Sugar beet growers in California, for example, are building a test site for refining ethanol from sugar beets, which its developers say can produce the biofuel with less water and a lower carbon footprint than corn.

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