Genome breakthrough heralds new dawn for agriculture

Decoding of genome hailed as most significant breakthrough in wheat production in 10,000 years

In a scientific tour-de-force that has been hailed as the most significant breakthrough in wheat production since the cereal crop was cultivated by the first farmers more than 10,000 years ago, scientists have decoded the genome of the wheat plant.

As a result, new breeds of disease-resistant crops could be producing higher wheat yields in as little as five years' time, raising the prospect of lower bread prices and greater food security in a more populated world. And rather than guard their knowledge, the British scientists responsible for the research will today place a draft version of the genome online, making it available for free to wheat breeders around the world, who will be able to use it to speed up the creation of the new disease-resistant varieties that are urgently needed. Most wheat breeders currently rely on traditional methods of mixing new crop varieties – techniques that have not changed substantially for hundreds of years.

Wheat production is under pressure, particularly this summer because of the failure of the Russian harvest. Yet world food production will have to increase by an estimated 50 per cent over the next 40 years if the growing global population is to be fed.

One leading scientist behind the British study said yesterday that knowing the wheat genome would revolutionise the conventional breeding of wheat. Breeders, he explained, will be able to take valuable shortcuts that reduce the amount of time it takes to breed essential new plant varieties resistant to disease and drought. This would not entail genetic modification, although the genome will also prove invaluable for scientists if they did want to directly change the DNA of the wheat plant.

Conventional breeding can exploit the information contained in the wheat genome to screen seeds for the genetic "markers" or signposts that indicate the presence of valuable genes, such as those for resistance to drought or disease.

"A process that now takes five or six years will take one or two years. It is quite possible in five years' time that a loaf of bread will be cheaper because of this," said Professor Neil Hall, a genome scientist at Liverpool University, one of the three research centres that carried out the study.

Professor Keith Edwards of the University of Bristol said the breakthrough was highly significant. "In a short space of time we have delivered most of the sequences necessary for plant breeders to identify genetic differences in wheat. The public release of the data will dramatically increase the efficiency of breeding new crop varieties," Professor Edwards said.

Wheat yields per hectare have increased threefold since Roman times, but over the past decade they have reached a plateau despite intensive efforts by the plant breeders who have struggled with the menace of constantly evolving wheat diseases. This is one reason why wheat production has failed to keep pace with increased demand.

"It has been estimated that in Europe, productivity needs to double to keep pace with demand and to maintain stable prices. We need to start breeding new varieties of wheat that will be important in five or 10 years' time," Professor Hall said.

"This means that we will be able to utilise the wheat genome to its full potential. It means that we can fully utilise what nature has given us." However Professor Hall added: "Unless global population is kept under control, nature may not be enough and we may have to use genetic modification because there is always going to be a limit to what you can get out of wheat."

Although wheat was one of the first domesticated crops, it has posed formidable problems for modern breeders, largely because of its complex genetics which are the result of the plant being a hybrid of three distinct species of wild grass. The 17 billion individual "letters" in the wheat genome – which is more than five times larger than the human genome – mean that it is one of the largest genomes to be sequenced. The draft sequence, covering 95 per cent of the wheat plant's DNA, was completed within a year of the start of the project, which cost £1.8m and was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

"Sequencing the human genome took 15 years to complete, but with huge advances in DNA technology, the wheat genome took only a year," Professor Hall said. "The information we have collected will be invaluable in tackling the problem of global food shortage."

He added: "The primary goal of this research was to help conventional plant breeders. But it may be that... genetic modification will also be necessary to boost yields."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power