The mapping of the wheat genome by an international team co-led by researchers from the University of Saskatchewan (USask) provides a fundamental tool for wheat research and plant breeding to develop better varieties with that can combat diseases, tolerate temperature and rainfall extremes, and meet different consumer needs, all while improving global food security.
USask is renowned for its work in Northern Great Plains agriculture, an area that will be increasingly important for future food production.
“With climate change, we will lose a lot of agriculture capacity around the equator – it’s just going to be too hot. That means that as agricultural productivity moves north, managing [the land base in] the Northern Great Plains will be critical for supplying food and other renewable resource-based items for the entire world,” says Mary Buhr, dean in USask’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources, pointing out wheat is the world’s most widely grown crop. “That’s why this mapping of the wheat genome is so important.”
For Curtis Pozniak, professor and wheat breeder at USask’s Crop Development Centre, tackling the wheat genome began several years ago when his team, together with colleague Andrew Sharpe from the university’s Global Institute for Food Security, joined the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium with the objective to develop a high-quality reference sequence of the bread wheat genome.
At that time, the team was working on a sequencing approach that was becoming outdated and expensive, says Dr. Pozniak.
“But science is always marching forward, and we wanted to be on the leading edge of technology. Two major changes happened over that time: the sequencing technology improved and became a lot cheaper, plus the computational biology that we needed to take that raw sequence information and reassemble it into a complete genome sequence also evolved,” he says.
After years of research, funding from a range of partners and working with the Israeli company NRGene, the actual sequencing and assembly took only three months.
The sequence, now in the public domain, is available to enable researchers, biologists and plant breeders around the world to further their work.
“All the researchers who were involved in the project recognized how important it is to advance research. It is a fundamental tool for biology and research in wheat,” says Dr. Pozniak, noting the manuscript that describes the wheat genome sequence has been cited more than 700 times in peer-reviewed publications since it was published in late 2018.
He considers the genome sequences as a blueprint.
“Wheat breeding has been successful for well over 100 years, but now we have access to the sequence – the genetic blueprint of wheat. That blueprint serves as a roadmap of all the genes, which paves the way to decipher those parts of the genetic code that can help wheat yield more and combat changing diseases, extreme temperatures or even changes in consumer preference. In the future, we can tackle these issues with more precision than we’ve been able to do in the past,” he says.
While working on the wheat genome project was a career highlight, Dr. Pozniak continues his work to understand each piece of the genome and its impact on agronomic performance and disease resistance.
He is also leading the 10+ Wheat Genomes Project, another international initiative that is sequencing a number of different wheat varieties from around the world.
“One genome is simply not enough. We need multiple sequences to compare, so that we can really appreciate the differences between wheat varieties and to fully appreciate the genetic diversity for wheat improvement.”
USask’s leading role in mapping the genome – a genome that is five times larger than the human genome – further underscores the university’s highly ranked position across several national and international organizations that rank post-secondary institutions.
“An achievement like this shows we have the brains, the leaders and the team-building ability to lead the future. This is a place where people who are capable of achieving greatness are encouraged and able to do so,” says Ms. Buhr.
That reputation attracts attention and makes the university a destination for researchers, graduate students, companies and for countries that are seeking solutions, she says.
Funding for the Canadian work was provided by Genome Canada and Genome Prairie; Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture and Government of Canada through the Agriculture Development Fund; Western Grains Research Foundation; Saskatchewan Wheat Commission; Alberta Wheat Commission; and Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association.
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