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Wheat Genome Study IDs Critical Genes, Traits

Curtis Pozniak in wheat field

Curtis Pozniak (Christina Weese, Univ. of Saskatchewan)

26 Nov. 2020. An international research team identified key features of the complex wheat genome, including genes affecting the grain’s yield, quality, and survival. The study that represents the efforts of 98 researchers in North America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East appears in yesterday’s issue of the journal Nature.

The study was done by the 10+ Genome Project, a worldwide effort to identify underlying core genomic features of wheat, and unique genetic variations, to develop better varieties of this critical grain for feeding an expanding world population, during a demanding global climate crisis. Wheat, say the researchers, is the most widely cultivated cereal grain in the world, with production that needs to grow by more than half by 2050 to meet expected demand.

The 10+ Genome Project seeks to describe wheat’s pan-genome, a complete inventory of the grain’s genes and genetic variations. Within the pan-genome, the project aims to highlight core genetic features common to all wheat types, while also identifying characteristics of unique varieties, particularly those associated with desirable traits. But the complex wheat genome — which allows the grain to grow in many parts of the world and under various climatic conditions — requires sequencing multiple wheat genomes.

The genomic analysis published in Nature is led by agricultural geneticist Curtis Pozniak, director of the Crop Development Centre at University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada. The team investigated a range of wheat varieties in global breeding programs with genomic combinations representing 10 different wheat chromosomes and five genetic assembly structures. Their analysis compared the genomes of these varieties with wild relatives and subsequent domesticated wheat types from their breeding histories.

The results identify genetic varieties with traits that improve yields and strengthen resistance against common threats to wheat crops. One of those findings is gene families expressing proteins with high volumes of the amino acid leucine that protect wheat against crop diseases. Other insights highlight the Sm1 gene that helps wheat resist insects, particularly the orange wheat blossom midge that University of Saskatchewan says causes some $60 million in losses to growers in western Canada.

“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,” says Pozniak in a university statement. “We can now compare and contrast the full complement of the genetic differences that make each variety unique.” Pozniak adds, “This resource enables us to more precisely control breeding to increase the rate of wheat improvement for the benefit of farmers and consumers, and meet future food demands.”

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