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12 November, 2015 - 10:01 By Kate Sweeney

Genomics boost for global wheat production

wheat TGAC

Genomics experts in the East of England have made a significant advance that could improve wheat production worldwide.

The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) in Norwich has come up with what it believes is a more complete and accurate wheat genome assembly which is being made available to researchers.

This landmark resource builds on international efforts in this arena and will help wheat breeders accelerate their crop improvement programmes and researchers to discover genes for key traits such as yield, nutrient use and bread making quality.

As wheat is one of the world’s most vital crops, the new genomics resources will help secure future food supplies, says TGAC.

The wheat genome is now assembled into fewer and much larger chunks of DNA and covers regions that previous assemblies did not reach, such as complicated highly repetitive regions that form about 80 per cent of the DNA sequences.

Matt Clark, group leader at TGAC and co-principal investigator on the grant said: “Furthermore, wheat has a very large and complex genome made by the hybridisation of three closely related grasses, each of which has a large genome itself. It’s has been a complex problem that has confounded scientists for several years.”

Reaching this milestone has been a major UK-based effort to identify and understand wheat genes and develop insights into the links between them to aid breeding programmes.

In this latest development, billions of bases needed to be sequenced and the assembly – a gigantic jigsaw puzzle using billions of pieces that are very similar to each other – took three weeks to complete on one of the UK’s largest supercomputers, which was specially configured for work on wheat.

To assemble the wheat genome, Bernardo Clavijo, algorithms research and development team leader at TGAC, made major modifications to a software, called DISCOVAR, developed by the Broad Institute in Cambridge US. This was previously used for specialist applications in human genome assembly. To ensure all the complexity of the DNA sequence was preserved during assembly, a series of major overhauls were made to the software.

These advances mean the software can now assemble several wheat genomes with high speed and great precision. This sets the stage for rapidly generating useful assemblies of many varieties of wheat, which is an essential step for breeding and research.

Mike Bevan from the John Innes Centre, co-principal investigator, said: “The capacity to sequence and assemble many wheat genomes efficiently breaks down major barriers to wheat crop improvement. We will now be able to exploit genetic variation from ancestral wheat varieties for crop improvement in new ways.”

The Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council funded the project.

• Picture Credit: Zeljko Radojko

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