In what is being claimed as a landmark study, researchers from the University of Western Australia have collaborated with an international team of scientists to sequence and analyse the genomes of 15 wheat varieties from breeding programs from around the world.
The research is said to provide the most comprehensive overview of wheat genome sequences ever reported.
Wheat, one of the world’s most cultivated crops, requires its production to be increased by more than 50% by 2050 in order to meet the estimated global demand for food.
Food security an increasing issue
“Wheat is a staple food and any improvements we can make to increase its productivity and quality will be important as the world population quickly grows and food security becomes an increasing issue,” explains Dr Joanna Melonek from the University of WA’s School of Molecular Sciences.
She and another WA university researcher, Professor Ian Small, contributed to the study through their globally recognised expertise in a family of genes known as Restorer-of-fertility-like (Rfl). These genes have valuable applications in wheat hybrid breeding programs.
The study to which they contributed is being published in the science journal Nature by the University of Saskatchewan in Canada and involves an international effort by more than 90 scientists from universities and institutes in Australia, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, Japan, the U.K., Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Israel and the US.
Lack of fertility control systems
“Wheat hybrids account for a fraction of wheat plants grown globally, despite the promise of higher yields and better tolerance of diseases and environmental challenges,” Professor Small said.
“The lack of fertility control systems that would be practical and affordable on an industrial scale is a major limitation in the development of hybrid varieties for self-pollinating crops like wheat.”
The researchers analysed the Rfl sequence information across the wheat genomes and found surprisingly high diversity across varieties. This is directly relevant to hybrid breeding programs.
Dr Melonek said the analysis of the Rfl gene family as a source of fertility-restorer genes would be important to accelerate hybrid-breeding programs which, if successful, would increase the production of wheat significantly.
Increase productivity and quality
“We knew from the first complete wheat genome reference published two years ago in [the journal] Science that wheat has a remarkably high number of Rfl genes, but this new work exposes the high variation among the family members between different wheat varieties,” she explained.
“Wheat is a staple food and any improvements we can make to increase its productivity and quality will be important as the world population quickly grows and food security becomes an increasing issue.”
The researchers believe that the findings are transferable to other plants and offer a significant route to help improve crop yield and quality in the future.