NRC researchers help crack the wheat genome code

- Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

From left to right: Raju Datla, Daoquan Xiang, Janet Condie, and Yifang Tan

After 13 years of collaborative research involving more than 200 scientists across 73 research institutions in 20 countries, the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC) has finally deciphered the wheat genome code. The detailed description of the genome of bread wheat, the world's most widely cultivated crop, was announced on August 16, 2018 in the international journal Science.

"Wheat is the most important and widely cultivated crop," says the NRC's Dr. Roman Szumski, Vice-President, Life Sciences. "Genetic improvements are critical for meeting the current and future needs and for global food security."

Sequencing the bread wheat genome was long considered an impossible task, due to its enormous size—five times larger than the human genome—and complexity bread wheat has three sub-genomes and more than 85% of the genome is composed of repeated elements.

The NRC’s Raju Datla, Daoquan Xiang, Janet Condie and Yifang Tan, in conjunction with Andrew Sharp from the University of Saskatchewan (and formerly with the NRC), contributed to this important research coordinated by IWGSC, which will pave the way for the production of wheat varieties better adapted to climate challenges, with higher yields, enhanced nutritional quality and improved sustainability.

"Availability of this comprehensive genomics resource for this crop is exciting because wheat is very important to the world community," says Dr. Raju Datla. "The scientific advances described in these articles represent a major step toward addressing the challenges and opportunities for the Canadian wheat industry."

Wheat is the staple food of more than a third of the global human population and accounts for almost 20% of the total calories and protein consumed by humans worldwide—more than any other single food source. It also serves as an important source of vitamins and minerals.

With the reference genome sequence now completed, breeders have at their disposal new advanced tools to address these challenges. They will be able to more rapidly identify genes and regulatory elements underlying complex agronomic traits such as yield, grain quality, resistance to fungal diseases, and tolerance to abiotic stress—and produce hardier wheat varieties.

For more information on this groundbreaking research, see the full article entitled Shifting the limits in wheat research and breeding using a fully annotated reference genome in Science.

The NRC's Raju Datla and Daoquan Xiang contributed to a second, related Science article led by the U.K.-based John Innes Centre, also reported in Science on August 16, entitled The transcriptional landscape of polyploid wheat. This research will directly help to identify specific genes that are key to important crop traits, such as grain size and number.

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