After years of standing on the sideline, watching game-changing scientific developments occur in the corn, soybean and rice industries and seeing wheat acreage dwindle as a result, the global wheat industry and the flour millers that process the ancient food grain finally have their own exciting breakthrough to celebrate.
A group of scientists from 20 countries, known as the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC), in August announced that after 13 years and a $70 million investment, their mission was finally accomplished with the publication of a detailed description of the highly complex genome of bread wheat, the world’s most widely cultivated crop.
Why did it take so long for scientists to solve the bread wheat genome code compared to the relatively short process for other grains such as corn, soybeans and rice? Given that wheat DNA is five times larger than the human genome (one of the wheat chromosomes is almost as large as the entire soybean genome), it’s amazing they were able to successfully complete this task at all.
The importance of this accomplishment cannot be overstated. Wheat is the staple food for more than one-third of the global human population and accounts for almost 20% of the total calories consumed by humans worldwide, more than any other single food source, so this is a victory to be celebrated beyond the wheat and milling industries.
The successful wheat genome sequencing paves the way for the development of wheat varieties with higher yields, which will be crucial going forward as the world’s population is expected to grow to nearly 10 billion people by 2050.
Of equal importance, it will lead to enhanced nutritional quality, improved sustainability and varieties that are more adaptable to climate change.
Although the wheat genome sequencing is completed, the work of the IWGSC is far from over. The next step for the IWGSC will be focusing on producing a genome sequence-based toolbox for breeders and scientists to use for wheat improvement. The IWGSC said researchers will undertake several projects, including maintaining and improving the current reference genome to ultimately produce a “Gold Standard” reference genome sequence that is manually and functionally annotated; sequencing other varieties of wheat to represent the worldwide diversity of wheat; and continuing to develop a database for the wheat community to access all the genomic resources.
The agronomic impact of the genome sequencing of wheat will be profound. Already, it is believed the key genes responsible for the susceptibility of certain wheat varieties to preharvest sprouting have been identified. While the prospect of developing varieties that will produce greater yields, are more tolerant to drought and more resistant to disease will mean greater profit for wheat producers, those further down the food supply chain, such as millers and bakers, are eager to see what processing, end-use and nutritional characteristics can be improved.
For the partnership between industry and the scientific community to work, millers and bakers must clearly communicate with scientists the types of properties they are seeking so that researchers can search for specific genes that impact milling and baking qualities. Genes determining flour yield are sure to be key targets as are genes that impact protein levels, starch quality and other characteristics that affect the processing, baking and nutritional quality of wheat-based foods.
After being stuck in neutral all these years, wheat now finds itself on a fast track to a bright and innovative future. The international group of scientists who succeeded in this wheat genome sequencing endeavor should be thanked and praised for their efforts.