British scientists have decoded the genetic sequence of wheat. 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.
The team used a process called pyrosequencing to help it break the genome of wheat. This technique involves extracting DNA, suspending it in fluid, breaking it apart with bursts of gas and using chemical reactions and a high-resolution camera to infer its makeup. The team worked with wheat lines such as the Chinese spring wheat, which has a tangled ancestry, tracing its descent from three different species of wild grass.
Although the genetic sequence remains a rough draft, and additional strains of wheat need to be analyzed for the work to be useful, Hall predicted it wouldn't take long for his work to make an impact in the field.
In response to this break-through, academia is excited. One academic in the field called the discovery "a landmark." Nick Talbot, a professor of biosciences at the University of Exeter, who wasn't involved in the research, says that the wheat genome is the holy grail of plant genomes.
"It's going to really revolutionize how we breed it," Talbot said. "Hopefully the benefit of this work will come through in the next five years."
The cracking of wheat's code comes at a time when prices have shot up in the wake of crop failures in Russia, highlighting how the vagaries of world food production can hit import-dependent countries such as Egypt.
Wheat is a relative latecomer to the world of genetic sequencing. This year marks the tenth 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. Hall explains that the reason for the delay in analyzing wheat's genetic code is that the code is massive - far larger than corn or rice and five times the length of the one carried by humans.