Wheat ancestor sequencing could bolster modern harvests

Copyright: NRGene

Speed read

  • An international consortium will sequence the genome of wild emmer wheat
  • The project could identify desirable genes to improve modern wheat varieties
  • Data on the micronutrient-rich wheat will be made freely available

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An international consortium of public and private partners plans to sequence the genome of wild emmer, an ancestor of modern wheat.
The nutrient-rich wheat could yield ideas to address global hunger by making modern wheat varieties healthier and hardier, scientists from the group say.

“Wild emmer wheat can be naturally crossed with domesticated wheat, hence it is a potential source for wheat improvement.”

Assaf Distelfeld, Tel Aviv University, Israel

Wild emmer is the progenitor of today’s durum and bread wheat varieties. It was one of the first crops to be domesticated during the dawn of agriculture, around 10,000 years ago in the Middle East.
“Wild emmer wheat can be naturally crossed with domesticated wheat, hence it is a potential source for wheat improvement,” says Assaf Distelfeld, a wheat geneticist at Tel Aviv University, Israel, and lead researcher in the project. Sequencing wild emmer wheat could assist efforts to improve the quality and yields of modern varieties, he says.
For example, wild emmer grain is rich in micronutrients such as iron and zinc. Transferring this trait to bread wheat could reduce malnutrition among people whose diet is based on this staple crop, the scientists say. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, wheat provides roughly a fifth of the calories eaten around the world.
“In addition, we hope to identify genes that enable wheat to grow better in tough environments, thus improving our food security,” says Distelfeld.

But assembling the genome is a complicated task as the wild emmer wheat genome is much more complex than the human one. NRGene, an Israel-based crop sequencing company that will do the work, promises results in six months.

The project partners include Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, the Sabanci University in Turkey and the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research in Germany.

“Researchers from Italy and Australia will soon join the team,” says NRGene co-founder Guy Kol. “After project completion, we will make sure that data are freely accessible to all those interested in tapping into the vast emmer wheat genome potential.”

The completed genome could increase opportunities for breeding programmes in the developing world to address hunger, which is one of the UN’s proposed Sustainable Development Goals.

The genomes of two other bread wheat progenitor species — Triticum urartu (wild einkorn wheat) and Aegilops tauschii (a type of wild grass) — were sequenced in 2013.
Justin Faris, a plant geneticist at the US government’s Agricultural Research Service, agrees the project might have far-reaching consequences.
“The sequencing of the wild emmer wheat genome will be a major scientific achievement, and it will profoundly affect our ability to produce wheat varieties improved for drought and pest resistance,” he says. “The resulting high-performance varieties would provide more nourishment for the world’s ever-growing population.”