Cereals 2012: Wheat breeding on the verge of DNA revolution

Wheat breeding is on the verge of a DNA revolution, which could lead to real advances in yield and disease resistance, with the much-anticipated publication of the first draft of wheat genome later this year.

Speaking at the Strutt and Parker breakfast meeting at Cereals, Chistobal Uauy, project leader at the John Innes Centre, said there is now a big buzz in research into wheat.

The recent focus on sustainable intensification will mean looking at ways to increase yields, while being sustainable. “Much more food is needed by 2050 and it is quite a daunting challenge,” he said.

One hurdle was career progression, which was difficult if you wanted to study wheat. “For example, there are colleagues working with the brassica arabidopsis, the lab rat of the crop world, which goes from seed to seed in six to eight weeks. But with wheat it takes much longer.”

This is important, as researchers are measured on “impact factor”, which is based on the number of publications and how often they are cited by other researchers.

“But it is all changing now and scientists are being attracted to work in wheat, as they want to help feed the world.”

It is also being fuelled by a longer-term approach to yields, such as the Rothamsted Research’s 20:20 Initiative, which is looking to hit 20t/ha in the next 20 years.

Also, the big scientific journals now want papers on wheat genetics, as they see it as crucial work.

Mr Uauy highlighted the current revolution in DNA sequencing. “Ten years ago the human genome was sequenced and it took millions of dollars, across many teams globally, to achieve this. Today, it [sequencing a human genome] can be done for $10,000, and later this year it’s set to fall to $1,000.

“This reduction in cost brings great possibilities for working on crops,” he said. Particularly as the first draft of the wheat genome is due to be published in the next few months.

He outlined the ongoing work at the John Innes Centre, including one project where he is investigating the problem of pre-harvest sprouting in collaboration with DEFRA and HGCA, plus four key breeders. “We have found six areas of the genome responsible for sprouting.”

He eventually sees the ability to predict the Hagberg Falling Number from the genome, so that breeders can select for varieties that are less likely to suffer sprouting.

Yield is a critical area and the one challenge with wheat is polyploidy, with the wheat genome having three copies of DNA. “Currently we can select for yield and see a 3% increase by selecting for it on one copy. But by understanding the genome, we could see a 10% increase by taking the breaks off all three copies of the gene.”

Mr Uauy is also looking at yellow rust and is now sequencing the new races and looking at how the pathogen changes. Understanding this may lead to a better strategy against the disease, with new tools and resistant genes.

Other projects at the centre are looking at take-all and nitrogen fixing in wheat.

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