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Wheat genome project to underpin food security

11 February 2009

An extensive genetic analysis of the wheat genome will be carried out by researchers at Bristol University, the University of Liverpool and the John Innes Centre, thanks to a £1.7M grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The work will help scientists to understand the genetic basis of differing levels of yield and environmental stress tolerance between wheat varieties. This knowledge could ultimately help to develop new types of wheat with higher yield or able to cope with the different conditions climate change is likely to bring.

The scientists aim to identify, using new DNA sequencing technologies, genetic differences between the UK's main wheat varieties. The project will also pave the way for comprehensive sequencing of the bread wheat genome by exploring the application of new sequencing technologies and analysis methods.

The wheat genome is five times larger than the human genome and is composed of three essentially separate yet closely related genomes. It therefore represents a major challenge in genome sequencing and analysis.

However, because it is one of the world’s most important food crops, accessing sequence variation that underlies yield differences and tolerance of environmental stresses is a very high priority. The development of new sequencing technologies that generate very large amounts of accurate sequence provides an opportunity to identify sequence differences in different wheat varieties.

Professor Janet Allen, Director of Research at BBSRC, said: "BBSRC has identified research underpinning food security as a vital strategic priority. Projects such as this to analyse the wheat genome are crucial. As a scientific community we have to realize that we need to go back to the fundamentals of developing the right crops to plant in the ground if we want to be able to feed a growing global population faced with the uncertainty of climate change. UK plant and crop scientists are world beaters and are well placed to rise to this challenge."

The researchers will generate sequence from a standard lab strain of wheat and from four varieties that provide a wide range of genetic variation used by UK breeders.

In addition to the major scientific advances this project can deliver, a key aspect of the BBSRC grant is a plan to ensure that the scientific knowledge generated can be exploited effectively by plant breeders for the benefit of UK consumers and industry.

Professor Keith Edwards, University of Bristol said: "The project will deliver new ways for plant breeders to efficiently identify genetic differences in wheat. This will dramatically increase the efficiency of breeding new varieties and identifying regions of the genome that carry key traits such as disease resistance, improved quality and yield."

This £1.7M grant follows on from recent BBSRC funding for the Bristol University scientists that total £1.3M for work relating to the exploitation of new technologies to enhance our understanding of the wheat genome and apply the results to wheat breeding.

BBSRC is taking forward research underpinning food security at a workshop being held in Central London later this month. The workshop will bring together leading scientists with industrial and other stakeholders, policymakers and funders, and aims to produce a list of priorities and a roadmap for UK research in the area of food security.



The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £420M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.

The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research are Institutes of BBSRC. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

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