The sequencing of the wheat genome means researchers will finally have access to genetic tools to help with wheat development — an advantage other crops have had for years.
It should also mean that Ontario growers will see quicker-developed varieties with traits like fusarium head blight resistance.
Wheat’s genome was finally sequenced earlier this year by a global project called the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC) and made freely available.
Why it matters: Wheat has lagged behind in speed of trait development compared to other crops like corn and soybeans.
Wheat is responsible for about 20 per cent of the calories consumed in the world, Andrew Sharpe told the recent Grow Canada conference in Ottawa. Sharpe is director of genomics and bioinformatics at the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) at the University of Saskatchewan. He co-led Canada’s contribution to the global wheat genome sequencing project with Curtis Pozniak, researcher and wheat breeder at the Crop Development Centre in the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources.
There are good reasons why the wheat genome has taken so long to sequence. Firstly, it doesn’t have the private-sector research push of crops like corn and soybeans, and secondly, the genome is gigantic, compared to other species.
It is, for example five times larger than the human genome. As a result, it has taken 13 years and more than 200 scientists from 73 research institutions in 20 countries working through the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC).
The journal Science published the highest quality wheat genome sequence in August.
The wheat genome is also more complex than other species, said Sharpe.
“The wheat genome is composed of very similar DNA repeats nested in one another, like a set of Russian dolls,” he said.
A breakthrough in algorithmic assessment ability also helped the researchers get to the full map. Israeli company NRGene has technology that made the billion-piece puzzle a million pieces, and then that million-piece puzzle a thousand pieces, he said.
A new project, started last year, called the 10+ Wheat Genomes Project, led by Pozniak, is a global effort to sequence the 10 most-grown wheat varieties around the world.
Agronomic and consumer implications
“Corn and soybeans have certainly seen bigger gains in development than wheat has,” said Ellen Sparry, general manager of C&M Seeds, an Ontario seed company focused on wheat. “Part of that is that they’ve been sequenced.”
The genome is like a map so breeders and researchers can return to areas of the genome that are known to affect different traits, making the breeding process more efficient. It can also help understand how genes affect each other.
It takes 12 to 15 years to develop a new variety of wheat through to commercialization, said Joanna Follings, cereals specialist for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. That time could be cut by a third now that the genome has been sequenced, she said.
The mapping of the genome means that more efficient decisions can be made on crosses while breeding new wheat varieties.
Sharpe said that understanding the genome also means that gene editing will be possible, but the technology has not been accepted around the world. Most countries are still sorting through how it will be regulated. Gene edits involve turning on and off genes within a plant, compared to adding in genes as is done in standard genetic modification.
There is potential for faster development in both agronomic and customer-appreciated traits, said Sparry.
A gene for stem thickness has already been identified, she said, which could lead to better ability to breed for resistance to lodging in wheat.
Follings said managing an increasing amount of disease, insect and weather damage, some due to climate change, could be helped by having a quicker ability to breed resistance into the cereal crop.
C&M Seeds has been a leader in finding markets for novel wheats, and also sees potential in consumer-focused traits that can be better targeted now that the genome is known, said Sparry.
Proteins could more easily be targeted to help people with gluten-tolerance issues. Other options could be higher fibre wheats.
“We would love to participate in any of that when it happens and bring value to the value chain,” she said.
Both Follings and Sparry said that the genome sequencing is another tool in the toolbox of the breeder. There are no wheat lines developed using genetic modification, so unless consumer preferences change, conventional breeding will be needed to carry out the crosses to get the desired traits to commercialization. But with the genome now known, those traits can be identified and crossed into production more quickly than ever before.