Q&A: Wheat breakthrough
What does mapping the genetic code of wheat mean for food security?
Last Modified: 27 Aug 2010 16:49 GMT
Scientists hope their discovery could lead to a new form of 'super-wheat' [AFP]

What have the scientists discovered?

British researchers have decoded 95 per cent of the genetic sequence of wheat in the same way that scientists in the past have mapped the DNA of rice, maize, animals and even humans.

The research behind the find is incredibly complicated - wheat's genetic code contains 16 billion base chemicals and around 80,000 genes.

That makes the wheat genome five times bigger than the human genome and even with the latest technology decoding it took a year.

How significant is their find?

Mapping the genetic code for wheat, one of the main staples for billions of people around the world, could have huge implications for food security. 

With climate change and natural disasters exacerbating hunger and food shortages around the world, developing news ways to make wheat more resistant and stronger would be a major breakthrough.

Developing a so-called super-wheat would ideally lower prices for bread and provide greater food security for the world's poor.

However, Friday's publication is a rough draft and does not give the full genetic code.

Keith Edwards from the University of Bristol in England, one of the lead scientists in the study, told Al Jazeera that the latest find was the "first step".

"It's very significant but you have to understand that it's the first step in decoding 100 per cent of the genome. We've decoded 95 per cent of the genome but we haven't yet completed the job," Edwards said.

"It becomes progressively more difficult the closer you get to completion. So we're still talking about another five maybe 10 years before the whole genome is completely sequenced and mapped out."

What is the difference between the new strain of wheat and genetically modified crops?

Scientists hope that wheat breeders will use the genetic sequence to create new, more robust strains of wheat. But these crops will not be genetically modified.

Genetic modification involves changing the plant's basic make-up - subtracting or adding a gene - to create a resilient crop.

Instead of doing this, breeders will use the genetic map to identify traits such as resistance to disease or drought in particular varieties of wheat, and then breed these strains together naturally.

"What we're doing is developing molecular markers for the good bits, so that the breeders can keep those, make sure they're not thrown away by mistake," Professor Edwards said.

"That super-wheat is based upon conventional wheat - so taking the bits from all different wheat varieties and bringing them together into a wheat that can cope with drought, can cope with other stress, can cope with diseases."

Can it really help alleviate world hunger?

The estimated world harvest of wheat is around 550 million tonnes, and is a major staple for billions of people - but recent natural disasters and drought have led to global deficits of the crop.

Russia recently banned wheat exports after a severe drought, Ukraine, long known as the bread basket of Europe, is threatening to impose quotas because of bad weather.

So if wheat could be produced to withstand the impacts of climate change then it could have a major effect on food security, most notably in the developing world.

However the process to do this is a long one.

According to Edwards, it takes between five and 15 years to develop new varieties.

"If we want to deliver something in 15 years we have to do something now. Our development will help the breeders to do that just a little bit quicker - probably shave two or three years off the process," he said.

"So it will make a contribution but like everything in life it's more complicated than you might imagine."

Al Jazeera and agencies
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