Scientists have sequenced the genomes for 16 wheat varieties, which they say will have “significant implications” for global wheat production and future global food security.
The researchers say their findings will enable breeders to quickly identify influential genes for improved yield, pest resistance and other important crop traits.
UK researchers from the Natural History Museum, Earlham Institute and John Innes Centre worked with an international team to create the most comprehensive atlas of wheat genome sequences ever reported.
Natural History Museum research leader, Professor Matt Clark, who worked on the study with senior bioinformatics scientist Dr Luca Venturini, said: “This research has significant implications for future global food security.
“Wheat is one of the world’s most widely cultivated crops and billions of people around the world depend on it.
“We know production will need to increase dramatically to continue to feed the world and, at the same time, this vital food source must also adapt to the effects of climate change.
“This study will allow breeders to better select traits to improve yield and harness genetic immunity to pathogens to reduce the need for pesticides which can have devastating effects on wider ecosystems and environments.”
Scientific groups across the global wheat community are expected to use the new resource to identify genes linked to in-demand traits, which will accelerate breeding efficiency.
Experts say improving yield has never been more urgent with estimates that wheat production must increase by more than 50% by 2050 to meet an increasing global demand.
The 10+ Genome study, led by the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, tracked the unique DNA signatures of genetic material incorporated into modern cultivars – varieties that have been produced in cultivation by selective breeding – from several of wheat’s undomesticated relatives by breeders over the century.
These wheat relatives can be used by breeders to improve disease resistance and stress resistance of wheat – selecting key traits more efficiently using a simple DNA test.
Professor Anthony Hall, head of plant genomics at the Earlham Institute, said: “We have generated genomes for important wheat varieties from across the globe.
“Knowing the sequence of these genomes allows us to use wheat as a model crop species, in the same way we use rice and maize, and changes the way research and breeding can be done.
“It allows us to understand how breeding histories have shaped this complex genome, address fundamental questions about evolution and selection and rapidly identify markers associated with genes controlling key agricultural traits.”
Curtis Pozniak, director of the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre (CDC) and project leader, said: “It’s like finding the missing pieces for your favourite puzzle that you have been working on for decades.
“By having many complete gene assemblies available, we can now help solve the huge puzzle that is the massive wheat pan-genome and usher in a new era for wheat discovery and breeding.
“Now we have increased the number of wheat genome sequences more than 10-fold, enabling us to identify genetic differences between wheat lines that are important for breeding.
“We can compare and contrast the full complement of the genetic differences that make each variety unique.”