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Wheat genome is mapped, but relying research will take years


WASHINGTON, D.C. — Drought- and flood-resistant wheat is one step closer – after more than a decade of work by scientists around the globe, the wheat genome has finally been mapped.

More work remains, however, as identifying what the different gene sequences control. It could take another decade of research, but now that the map is complete, work on identifying the characteristics of the genes should move more quickly.

Bikram Gill, a recently retired plant pathologist at Kansas State University, was the lead scientist in the United States for the project. He was there 13 years ago during the first meeting in Washington, D.C., when shareholders around the world came together to discuss the importance of mapping the wheat genome.

The human genome was the first complex genome sequenced. It was finished in 2003 after more than a decade. Corn, rice, soy and other crops and animals were started before 2003, but the wheat industry realized its crop was being left behind, Gill said.

Each genome is a series of markers. The human genome has about 5 billion markers, while the wheat genome has about 16 billion. They have a map now, but scientists still don’t know what it means.

“It’s like trying to read a book without knowing the words,” he said. But the map helps.

Once the map was finished, Gill had a grad student who quickly found the genes she was looking for; she’d spent six years looking. Thousands of other grad students are working on other projects, but the genome is so big it will still take decades.

Identifying the genes that make certain varieties of wheat resistant to drought and flood or increase yield can be used in the future to change specific characteristics in the crop. It can make wheat more marketable and profitable for farmers. The process will be faster than crossbreeding plants to find the same traits.

Gill said the genes for gluten have been found. They were identified before the map of the genome was finished. Now scientists are looking at how the genes and connecting pathways react together, and the different types of gluten protein.

Someday soon, there may be a way to commercially grow only wheat without the gluten protein that has caused allergies in some people.

Ed Kaleikau, national program leader for plant breeding, genetics and genomics at the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, has been involved in the program since the first meeting in 2003. NIFA was a major source of funding for the mapping program.

He said mapping the wheat genome was delayed because of the complexity of it. The science and knowledge needed to improve. While the genome is more complex than soy and corn genomes, the cost to map it was similar.

Now the NIFA is funding projects to research the genes, like increasing the grain yield component, Kaleikau said. The map of the genome was made public, and private companies are using the information to direct their own research, he added.