Discovery of wheat's genetic code to boost harvests
British scientists have decoded the genetic sequence of wheat -- one of the world's oldest and most important crops -- a development they hope could help the global staple meet the challenges of climate change, disease and population growth.
Wheat is grown across more of the world's farmland than any other cereal, and researchers said yesterday that they are posting its genetic code to the internet in the hope scientists can use it as a tool to improve harvests. One academic in the field called the discovery "a landmark".
University of Liverpool scientist Neil Hall, whose team cracked the code, said the information could eventually help breeders of varieties of wheat better identify genetic variations responsible for disease resistance, drought tolerance and yield.
Although the genetic sequence remains a rough draft, and additional strains of wheat need to be analysed, Mr Hall predicted it would not take long for his work to make an impact in the field.
"Hopefully the benefit of this work will come through in the next five years," he said.
Decoding the entire sequence, known as the genome, gives unparalleled insight into how an organism is formed, develops, and dies.
Wheat is a relative latecomer to the world of genetic sequencing. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the date the human genome was laid bare. Other crops have had their genetic codes unscrambled within the past few years -- rice in 2005, corn in 2009, and soybeans earlier this year.
The reason for the delay in analysing wheat's genetic code, Mr Hall said, was that the code is massive -- far larger than corn or rice and five times the length of the one carried by humans.
One reason for the outsize genome is that strains such as the Chinese spring wheat analysed by Mr Hall's team carry six copies of the same gene (most creatures carry two.) Another is that wheat has a tangled ancestry, tracing its descent from three different species of wild grass.