USDA scientists working as part of an international team have completed a shotgun sequencing of the wheat genome, a paper published in the journal Nature reported Wednesday. The achievement is expected to increase wheat yields, help feed the world and speed up development of wheat varieties with enhanced nutritional value.
"By unlocking the genetic secrets of wheat, this study and others like it give us the molecular tools necessary to improve wheat traits and allow our farmers to produce yields sufficient to feed growing populations in the United States and overseas," said Catherine Woteki, USDA's Chief Scientist and Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics. "Genetics provides us with important methods that not only increase yields, but also address the ever-changing threats agriculture faces from natural pests, crop diseases and changing climates."
Olin Anderson and Yong Gu, scientists with USDA's Agricultural Research Service based at the agency's Western Regional Research Center in Albany, Calif., played instrumental roles in the sequencing effort, along with Naxin Huo, a post-doctoral researcher working in Gu's laboratory. All three are co-authors of the Nature paper.
The study represents the most detailed examination to date of the DNA that makes up the wheat genome, a crop domesticated thousands of years ago. The wheat genome is five times the size of the human genome, giving it a complexity that makes it difficult to study. The researchers used the whole genome shotgun sequencing approach, which essentially breaks up the genome into smaller, more workable segments for analysis and then pieces them together.
Grown on more land area than any other commercial crop, wheat is the world's most important staple food, and its improvement has vast implications for global food security. The work to complete the shotgun sequencing of the wheat genome will help to improve programs on breeding and adaptation in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa for wheat crops that could be drought tolerant and resistant to weeds, pests and diseases.
Another international team of scientists is working on a long-term project expected to result in more detailed sequencing results of the wheat genome in the years ahead. But the results published today shed light on wheat's DNA in a way that will help breeders develop hardier varieties by linking genes to key traits, such as disease resistance and drought tolerance.
ARS is one of nine institutions with researchers who contributed to the study. The lead authors are based in the United Kingdom and were funded by the British-based Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Funding also was provided by USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, or NIFA.
The Nature paper can be found here.