This week Down Under

Ancient genes analysed to protect modern wheat

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Related tags Nutrition

Scientists in Queensland have been undertaking research into ancient wheats in a bid to ensure the crop’s future.

In the first study of its kind, the Queensland University researchers say that strain diversity is central to sustainability 10,000 years after humans first domesticated wheat.

Modern breeding and a switch to monoculture cropping has greatly improved yield and quality, but the lack of genetic variation has caused crops to become more vulnerable to new diseases and climate change​,” said Lee Hickey, who leads the research team.

Diversity in ancient strains could hold the key to the future​.” 

Dr Hickey said disease and drought cost the industry millions of dollars every year, and climate change is likely to make the situation worse. 

The Hickey Lab, which conducts discovery and applied research on Australia’s most important cereal crops and is supervised by Dr Hickey, offers the research community open-access to this resource, including the pure seed of the ancient wheats, along with DNA marker information.

Its latest research, “Into the vault of the Vavilov wheats: old diversity for new alleles​”, is published in Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution.

In their work, the Hickey Lab researchers have been focusing on the findings of Russian scientist Nikolai Vavilov, who devoted his life to the improvement of cereal crops in the last century.

During the early 1900s, Vavilov travelled the world to collect seeds that he stored in a seed bank in Leningrad, now known as the NI Vavilov Institute of Plant Genetic Resources.

Vavilov’s unique seed collection represents a snapshot of ancient wheats grown around the world prior to modern breeding​,” Dr Hickey said.

Following in the footsteps of the Russian scientist, Queensland University PhD student Adnan Riaz has performed the world’s first genome-wide analysis of Vavilov’s seeds.

A total of 295 diverse wheats were examined using 34,000 DNA markers​,” Riaz said.

The genomic analysis revealed a massive array of genes that are absent in modern Australian wheat cultivars​.

The ancient genes could offer valuable sources of disease resistance or drought tolerance​.”

We hope this will empower scientists and wheat breeders to rediscover genetic diversity lying dormant in our seed banks​,” Dr Hickey added.

More stories from Down Under…

Chinese corporation invests in microalgae research in South Australia

A global Chinese agribusiness group will work with Australian academics to expand a microalgae and marine bioproduct development centre in Adelaide.


The research collaboration between Shandong Tianjiu Industrial Group and Flinders University will be worth A$1m (US$760,000) over three years and focus on identifying new products and developing advanced manufacturing technologies.

These will be used to increase applications, yields and purity of high-value marine bioproducts for functional foods in the premium export market. 

Tianjiu, with more than 7,000 hectares of intensive commercial farming, has annual global sales of more than $A220m. 

Its biotech subsidiary produces more than 500 tonnes of plant product extracts a year, including yam flour, malt extract and a popular certified non-dairy creamer.

Tianjiu is also one of the largest manufacturers of plant-derived functional peptides from food crops such as soybean, corn and peas. Its plant extracts have a wide range of applications in the health food and nutritional supplement industries, beverage and baking sectors, as well as the pharmaceutical industry.

This is not the first collaboration by Flinders University with Chinese partners. In 2014, it partnered with Gather Great Ocean Group to establish an joint advanced macroalgae laboratories in Adelaide and Qingdao.

Wei Zhang, director of the Centre for Marine Bioproducts Development at Flinders, said the new agreement covered the first phase of investment and could expand in the future.

South Australia’s clean marine environment is very highly regarded in Asia​,” Prof Zhang said.

Developing high-value marine biotech for advanced food manufacturing will add to Australia’s growing marine ‘blue economy’ which is forecast to grow to more than A$100bn [US$75.6bn] by 2025​.”

South Australia is considered a world leader in clean, green premium seafood and has large stocks of southern bluefin tuna, abalone, oysters and southern rock lobster.

Microscopic marine algae or phytoplankton is a sustainable and inexpensive source of single-celled photosynthetic organisms closely related to plants that contain compounds with benefits for human health and nutrition, animal diets and can even be used for next-generation biofuels.

Proteins and peptides from microalgae, and other marine organisms, can be used as functional foods or supplements in a more healthy diet and to prevent or treat some medical conditions.

South Australian investment and trade minister Martin Hamilton-Smith said the agreement represented an opportunity to strengthen connections between Shandong and South Australia in research, development and commercialising results.

[It] may also identify opportunities to export commodities, such as dairy and barley, and investment in agriculture businesses in Australia and advanced manufacturing of high-value products​,” Hamilton-Smith said.

Survey suggests blokes should man up and swap the barbie for the kitchen

Australian men are being called to ditch the takeaway and start cooking meals at home after a recent survey found one in four needed to “man up in the kitchen​”.


The Dietitians Association of Australia survey, which looked at the cooking habits of more than 800 men, found that 24% cook at home no more than twice a week.

These statistics come despite the same survey finding more than 90% of men like to cook.

Themis Chryssidis of the DAA said the results showed a change in the traditional distribution of household chores as men become more acquainted with the kitchen, but there is still some work to do.

These survey results are really clear: men do like to cook, which is great. They are just not stepping into the kitchen often enough and this could be for a variety of reasons. Men need to make cooking more of a priority in their lives​,” Chryssidis said.

The survey follows recent research from Omnipoll, commissioned by DAA, which found men are almost twice as likely as women to eat three or more takeaway meals a week.

This regular intake of takeaway is really concerning as we know takeaway meals can be high in kilojoules, fat, sugar and salt, so shouldn’t be eaten regularly. Men need to step away from the pizza box, don an apron and get busy in the kitchen​.” Chryssidis said.

According to the DAA, cooking at home is absolutely key to maintaining weight and improving health.

Research tells us that people who cook at home are more likely to have a healthier diet, eat less kilojoules, and eat more vegetables​.

Not only is cooking at home healthier, it’s also more affordable and a great way to relax and socialise​,” Chryssidis added.

DAA is asking men to think outside their normal cooking repertoire – and for some men this means getting friendly with greens.

Most blokes consider themselves grill masters, but there is more to cooking than just the odd barbecue in summer. Too often, men cook the meat and their partners prepare the salads​.

Gents, it’s not that hard to whip up a delicious salad and, if you do it well, people will talk more about your salad than the perfectly-cooked steak​,” said Chryssidis.

Related topics R&D Milling & Grains Ancient Grains

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