Scientists ‘crack wheat gene code’

Breakthrough could improve crop yields currently under threat from climate change.

Unravelling wheat's genetic code could help combat food shortages around the world
Unravelling wheat's genetic code could help combat food shortages around the world

“We need to be breeding now what we’ll need to be eating in 10 years’ time.”

Crop under threat

According to Britain’s Independent newspaper, the discovery means new breeds of disease-resistant crops could be producing higher wheat yields in as little as five years’ time.

The work, backed by Britain’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), revealed 95 per cent of the genome for a variety of wheat known as Chinese Spring line 42.


  Wheat breakthrough

The variety is not a commercial type of wheat but a “benchmark laboratory strain” used to study wheat as a whole, Mike Bevan, a professor at the John Innes Centre which took part in the project, said.

“It’s the ‘lab rat’ of the wheat world,” he told the AFP news agency.

Scientists hope that understanding the genetic differences between wheat varieties will allow them to develop new types of the crop that are better able to withstand drought, salinity, or better able to bring higher yields.

Wheat production worldwide is under threat from climate change and rising demand from a growing human population.

Price spikes

World wheat prices reached a two-year high earlier this month after a record drought in Russia and crop problems in other countries.

On Thursday, the London-based International Grains Council lowered its 2010/11 wheat crop forecasts for Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, leading to a drawdown in global stocks while demand continues to rise.

World wheat prices reached a two-year
high in August  [GALLO/GETTY]

The global wheat crop was sliced seven million tonnes to 644 million tonnes, and wheat prices on the Chicago Board of Trade rose.

Doug Kell, head of the BBSRC, said recent price spikes in the wheat markets “have shown how vulnerable our food system is to shocks and potential shortages”.

“The best way to support our food security is by using modern research strategies to understand how we can deliver sustainable increases in crop yields, especially in the face of climate change.”

In the past, the wheat genome has been viewed as all but impossible to sequence because of its sheer size – being made up of 17 billion base pairs of the chemicals that make up DNA.

As a result, wheat is the last of the major food crops to have its genome sequenced.

The gene maps of rice and maize, two other world food staples whose genetic codes are far simpler, have already been completed.

Source: News Agencies

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