Saskatchewan researchers help crack the wheat genome

The development could unlock untapped yield and quality potential

University of Saskatchewan researchers are part of an international team who published the first chromosome-based draft sequence of the wheat genome, a development that promises wheat breeders powerful new tools in developing varieties to meet the challenges of world population growth and climate change.

“The release of the chromosomal draft of the wheat genome sequence will accelerate gene discovery in wheat, and pave the way for development of tools to improve breeding of complex traits such as yield, insect and disease resistance, and end-use quality,” said Curtis Pozniak, one of the principal investigators for the university’s contribution to the paper, which appears in the July 18, 2014 issue of the international journal, Science.

Pozniak, a professor in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources, is a wheat breeder and geneticist with the Crop Development Centre. He is also one of the project leaders of CTAG (Canadian Triticum Advancement through Genomics), a multi-year, multimillion-dollar project managed by Genome Prairie that supports sequencing of the wheat genome.

“The chromosome-based draft is a technical tour de force and highlights improvements in sequencing and bioinformatics over the last few years,” said Andrew Sharpe, co-principal investigator for CTAG and research officer at the National Research Council of Canada’s Saskatoon research facilities on campus. “The work has provided a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of the wheat genome. However, the full story will only be established with the development of a reference genome sequence.”

The work is a key step towards generating the knowledge needed to unlock higher productivity in wheat and meet global demand.

Worldwide, statistics show wheat ranks third behind corn and rice in volume produced, with almost 700 million tonnes harvested from 215 million hectares. This is the most area of any crop under cultivation, in part due to the crop’s ability to grow in a wide range of environments. A staple for about 30 per cent of the world’s people, wheat’s ease of storage and versatility make it a key ingredient in a wide variety of foods across many cultures.

CTAG represents Canada’s contribution to the Inter-national Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC), which is focused on sequencing each of the 21 chromosomes of bread wheat. Involving more than 1,000 researchers worldwide, IWGSC’s goal is to complete a “reference sequence” or complete wheat genome sequence. To date, this has been achieved for chromosome 3B, the largest of wheat’s 21 chromosomes, a feat published in the same issue 
of Science.

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