A group of international scientists has cracked the complex genetic code of wheat, offering the prospect of global food security in one of the world's most important crops.

A group of international scientists has cracked the complex genetic code of wheat, offering the prospect of global food security in one of the world’s most important crops.

There are nearly 70 different varieties of wheat recommended for farming and suitable for bread, biscuits or for distilling. By improving wheat varieties, scientists hope to increase crops yields by engineering them to be more tolerant to disease, climate change, pests and other factors which currently affect harvests.

Co-author of the paper published in the journal Nature, Professor Neil Hall of University of Liverpool, said: "The raw data of the wheat genome is like having tens of billions of scrabble letters. You know which letters are present, and their quantities, but they need to be assembled on the board in the right sequence before you can spell out their order into genes.

"We've identified about 96,000 genes and placed them in an approximate order. This has made a strong foundation for both further refinement of the genome and for identifying useful genetic variation in genes that scientists and breeders can use for crop improvement."

Genetic markers

The researchers created "genetic markers" from wheat varieties and compared them to ancestral grasses like rice and barley to see if desired traits were present. New varieties were then created through artificial selection for "precision breeding".

By altering the genetic code sequence of bread, wheat scientists will be able to modify the new varieties for specific characteristics, making them more resilient to guarantee good crop yields.

The raw data of the wheat genome is like having tens of billions of scrabble letters. Prof Neil Hall, Liverpool University

According to the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB), breeding aims to improve the quality, diversity and performance of agricultural and horticultural crops. It says none of the major food crops grown in Britain are native to this country.

Cereals, potatoes, root crops and oilseeds which make up our farmland have their origins in many different parts of the world which have been adapted through plant breeding, to thrive under UK growing conditions.

More than 680 million tonnes of wheat is processed globally each year. Scientists believe that as the world's population continues to grow, the demand for more wheat harvests will also rapidly rise and the need for sustainable farming will be greater than ever.

More than a food

Professor Denis Murphy, head of the Life Sciences Research Unit at the University of Glamorgan, who was not involved in this research, said: "This is a landmark paper that outlines the genetic blueprint of one of the major global crops. Bread wheat provides a vital staple food to billions of people across the world and is found in products ranging from chapattis and pita breads to biscuits and western-style leavened (raised) bread.

"However, bread is much more than a mere food. Since its domestication about 10,000 years ago, bread has acquired considerable cultural significance among European and near eastern societies.

Bread has acquired considerable cultural significance among European and near eastern societies. Prof Denis Murphy, Glamorgan University

"As we struggle to confront the increasing challenges of population increase, land degradation, and climate change that are contributing to widespread food insecurity, it will be vital to understand the underlying genetics of staple crops like wheat.

"The newly published wheat genome will be a vital resource for researchers and crop breeders across the world in their efforts to maintain global food supplies."

Complex hybrid

Until now the very large size and complexity of bread wheat's genome has been a significant barrier to crop improvement. It has taken researchers two years to analysis these data.

Klaus Mayer one of the researchers involved, of the Institute of Bioinformatics and Systems Biology, Helmholtz-Zentrum, Munich, said: "Bread wheat is a complex hybrid, composed of the complete genomes of three closely related grasses. This makes it very complex and large. In total it is almost five times bigger than the human genome.

"Because of this, we took a novel approach to analysing the data, and we have been successful in turning it into accessible and useful resources that will accelerate breeding and the discovery of varieties with improved performance - for example better disease resistance and stress tolerance."

Improved crop varieties can only go so far in addressing the food security challenges we face. Clare Oxborrow, Friends of the Earth

Farming campaigner Clare Oxborrow, from the environmental organisation, Friends of the Earth (FoE), told Channel 4 News: "These developments provide a great opportunity for researchers to improve wheat varieties through advanced genetic mapping techniques without the need for risky genetic modification.

"But improved crop varieties can only go so far in addressing the food security challenges we face - huge proportions of cereal crops are used for biofuels and animal feed, rather than feeding people.

"The government must step up its efforts to push for sustainable diets globally - including reduced meat consumption in wealthy countries and an end to food crops being used for biofuels."

The government says it wants to build on the agri-tech strategy currently being developed by scientists.

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