Decoding of wheat genome will help address global food shortage

Wheat production world-wide is under threat

Scientists at the University of Liverpool have decoded the genome of wheat – the largest genome to be sequenced to date – to help crop breeders increase the yield of British wheat varieties.

Wheat production world-wide is under threat from climate change and an increase in demand from a growing human population.  Liverpool scientists, in collaboration with the University of Bristol and the John Innes Centre, have sequenced the wheat genome and will make the DNA data available to crop breeders to help them select key agricultural traits for breeding.

Bread wheat, with an estimated world harvest of more than 550 million tonnes, is one of the most important food crops in the world and is worth more than £2 billion to the UK’s agricultural industry.  Wheat breeders, however, have few genetic tools to help them select key agricultural traits for breeding and do not always know the genes responsible for the trait they need.  Scientists have analysed the wheat genome, which is five times larger than the human genome, to give breeders the tools required to select traits for a healthy yield.

Professor Neil Hall, from the Institute of Integrative Biology, explains: “Sequencing the human genome took 15 years to complete, but with huge advances in DNA technology, the wheat genome took only a year.  The information we have collected will be invaluable in tackling the problem of global food shortage.  We are now working to analyse the sequence to highlight natural genetic variation between wheat types, which will help significantly speed up current breeding programmes.”

The project, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), was undertaken at the University’s Centre for Genomic Research.  The facility is home to five next generation genome analysers, which can read DNA hundreds of times faster than the systems that were used to sequence the human genome.

Dr Anthony Hall added: “Wheat production is already under pressure with failures in the Russian harvest driving up world wheat prices.  It is predicted that within the next 40 years world food production will need to be increased by 50 per cent. Developing new, low input, high yielding varieties of wheat, will be fundamental to meeting these goals.  Using this new DNA data we will identify variation in gene networks involved in important agricultural traits such as disease resistance, drought tolerance and yield.”

Professor Keith Edwards, from the University of Bristol, said: “In a short space of time we have delivered most of the sequences necessary for plant breeders to identify genetic differences in wheat. The public release of the data will dramatically increase the efficiency of breeding new crop varieties.”

Notes to editors:

1. The University is home to the Centre for Genomic Research which is a leading facility for genome sequencing, with client researchers from major companies and research institutions world-wide.  The state-of-the-art new generation genome sequencing instruments is available as a service for the scientific user community.  The facility is home to two Roche 454 FLX instruments and three SOLiD next generation genome analysers, which can read 10,000 million separate letters of DNA in a single day.

2. The University has established an inter-disciplinary Food Security Network to address concerns over increasing food shortages worldwide. Global food security is now an international concern with the converging impacts on human welfare of increasing population size, shortages of natural resources and climate change. The Food Security Network will investigate many of these challenges, which span all aspects of animal and crop production, disease control, nutrition and food quality, as well as land use and biofuels, and food processing.

3.  The University of Liverpool is a member of the Russell Group of leading research-intensive institutions in the UK. It attracts collaborative and contract research commissions from a wide range of national and international organisations valued at more than £98 million annually.

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