Cracking Wheat

cracking wheat

Canadian researchers are part of an international team uncovering the secrets of the wheat genome to better meet growing global food demand

Last revised: December 2015 

Wheat fields are as quintessentially Canadian as the snow-capped Rockies and the shoals of Peggy’s Cove. To farmers, that same wheat represents a $4 billion annual industry. To genomics researchers, it’s a field of exploration they are just beginning to map.

Canadian scientists are part of an international team that in July 2014 published the first chromosome-based draft sequence of the wheat genome, a breakthrough that offers wheat breeders powerful new knowledge for their quest to meet the demands of world population growth and climate change, including a projected 70 per cent increase in global food demand by 2050.

“The release of the draft wheat genome sequence will accelerate gene discovery in wheat, and pave the way for the development of tools to improve the breeding of complex traits such as yield, insect and disease resistance, and end-use quality,” said Dr. Curtis Pozniak, a University of Saskatchewan professor and co-leader of the Canadian Triticum Advancement through Genomics project, a multi-year, multi-million dollar project, supported by Genome Canada, Genome Prairie and others, focused on the sequencing of the wheat genome.

Dr. Pozniak and his team are part of the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC), which is in the process of sequencing each of the 21 chromosomes of bread wheat. Involving more than 1,000 researchers worldwide, IWGSC’s goal is to complete a “reference sequence” or completely mapped wheat genome, which is five times larger than the human genome. Seventy-five thousand genes have already been mapped.

At the same time, the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre is leading a national multidisciplinary team in using the latest in DNA sequencing technology to develop genomic tools for marker-assisted breeding. This identifies genetic variation between members of the same species. Wheat breeders can use “marker assisted selection” to help select plants for characteristics including cold and drought tolerance, gluten strength, pre-harvest sprouting and resistance to wheat rust, fusarium head blight and insects. Over the past three years, the researchers have sequenced important regions of the genomes of more than 100 wheat cultivars, and identified well over 100,000 genetic markers.

“Canada has a world reputation for the highest-quality wheat. This research will improve the efficiency of plant breeding and ensure our producers remain competitive.” — Dr. Curtis Pozniak, biologist

Decoding the genomes of wheat cultivars grown in Canada are expected to enable Canadian farmers to increase yield, potentially adding some $330 million yearly to the current $4.5 billion value of wheat production in Canada.

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