Australia

Australian scientists help crack the wheat genome

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Long thought to be an impossible puzzle, researchers have developed the first detailed road map of the wheat genome.

Researchers from Agriculture Victoria and the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC) have helped decode wheat’s genome - a code almost five times bigger than the human genome.

The breakthrough, some 13 years in the making, will go some way to helping safeguard the crop against drought and climate change, and improve quality and production.

According to Associate Professor Jason Able from the University of Adelaide's Agricultural Science department, demand is only going to keep increasing.

"By the time 2050 comes around the corner, there's predicted to be 9 - 10 billion people on the planet," he said.

"With 50 per cent of the world population relying upon wheat day in, day out, we do need to come up with smarter tools and technologies in order to be able to bridge that gap."

The researchers said they believe the value in the research is in it being used as widely as possible, and will be releasing it publicly.

Agriculture Victoria honorary research fellow, Professor Rudi Appels, said when he joined the IWGSC more than a decade ago, many researches thought wheat sequencing was “impossible”.

He said whether individuals or organisations decide to patent something is up to them.

And he says industry support has been vital to getting to this point, with agriculture giants like Monsanto - now owned by Bayer - playing a role.

There have been previous claims of successfully sequencing the wheat genome.

In 2017, a team at Johns Hopkins University in the United States announced they had a completed sequence.

Researchers said the difference this time is the assembling of the information.

"We've gone the extra distance of ordering all those sequence bits…and we've sort of combined it into the 21 chromosomes that constitute wheat", Professor Appels said.

"You can actually define what you’re interested in and then go to that spot."

Why does this matter?

Wheat is the most widely cultivated crop on earth, and contributes $6 billion to Australia's economy annually.

Scientists said the map will mean individual traits can be identified and isolated, with the potential for outside traits to be introduced as well.

Researcher at Agriculture Victoria, Professor Josquin Tibbits, said the breakthrough could particularly benefit Australia’s industry, with parts of the country currently dealing with drought.

"That will give a lot more certainty to farmers about what they grow, that when they're planting and investing in growing things that they're likely to succeed," he said.

"All of us who eat wheat around the world will probably be touched by this work."

Also excited about the possibilities is Associate Professor Vicky Solah from the School of Molecular and Life Sciences at Curtin University.

She said she could even envision a day when people with wheat or gluten intolerances being able to eat modified wheat products.

"We can look at the gluten proteins and maybe have a look at making gluten okay for coeliacs, if we have that science," she said.

Professor Tibbits believes this breakthrough will go down in history.

"I think the reach of it and the impact is going to be extremely long-lived. I think this work will be impacting wheat and wheat research for at least the next century if not longer. "

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