Ancient grain genome breakthrough advances struggle for food security

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Wheat

A group of international scientists has identified the complex DNA sequence of Wild Emmer, which will open up an unparalleled opportunity to further the development of hardier, more productive strains of modern wheat.

BakeryandSnacks last month reported that researchers have identified the genome sequence of Wild Emmer​ – the original form of nearly all domesticated wheat.

This, they said, will have a significant impact on global food safety and security.

The team players

Researchers represented universities across the globe, including Hebrew University, Weizmann Institute of Science, University of Haifa, Ben Gurion University and the Volcani Institute for Agricultural Research in Israel, Sabanci University in Turkey, University of Saskatchewan, University of California-Davis, Kansas State University, Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research in Germany, CREA Research Centre for Genomics and Bioinformatics (Italy) and Montana State University. 

To understand the tangible bearing of this scientific breakthrough, we spoke to Dr Gil Ronen, CEO of NRGene, the Israeli genomic data company behind the bioinformatics technology that fast-tracked the identification of the complex 14 chromosome sequence of Wild Emmer.

“Cereal is one of the first ever species to be domesticated … enabling the transformation of humanity from hunter gatherers to farmers. It remains a major source of nutrition to this day,”​ said Dr Ronen.

Back to the beginning

Wheat started its agricultural journey over 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent - a region in the Middle East known as the Cradle of Civilization that curves from the Persian Gulf, through modern-day southern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and northern Egypt.

The cultivation of grains has traversed a circle.

Among the first plants to be grown by humans (known as the Neolithic founder crops) were wild strains of wheat that today act as catalysts to create modern varieties.

The eight Neolithic founder crops consisted of flax, pulses – peas, lentils, bitter vetch and chickpeas – and three cereals:

  • Emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum​, descended from the wild T. dicoccoides​)
  • Einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum​, descended from the wild T. boeoticum​)
  • Barley (Hordeum vulgare/sativum​, descended from the wild H. spontaneum​).
Wild wheat

According to Dr Ronen, the Emmer wheat genome provides a good tool to map other wheat genomes.

“It is also a good source for desirable traits that can be introduced into modern bread and durum wheat,”​ he said, noting that that one of the major steps toward domestication is the control of shedding.

Seed shedding

Wild wheat sheds its seeds very easily to spread its progeny, while cultivated wheat does not, allowing the farmer to collect all the seeds.

Dr Gil Ronen

“Wild wheat can help locate variations related to important traits such as drought tolerance, disease resistance and increased productivity.”

As such, the bygone farmer selected plants that did not shed easily to use as progenitors for the following year’s plants. This practice isolated a domesticated breed that carried the desirable traits.

However, Dr Ronen said modern wheat has essentially lost important genetic variations that exist in their wild relatives.

Food security

“Wild wheat can help locate variations related to important traits such as drought tolerance, disease resistance and increased productivity,” ​said Dr Ronen.

“The recent research​ was carried out by academia but can be used by any entity involved in wheat breeding.”

The chance to cherry-pick the best

“Scientists have been attempting to assemble the Emmer wheat genome for more than a decade.

“NRGene was able to accelerate the process with its DeNovoMAGICTM technology that uses big data analytics to assemble the complete genome,”​ said Dr Ronen.

The discovery has given scientists the chance to compare ancient wheat with modern wheat and cherry-pick the more advantageous genes and characteristics.

A consortium of researchers led by Dr Curtis Pozniak from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada has now set out to create a bread wheat pan-genome, covering all domesticated wheat genetic variation.

A pan-genome is the entire gene pool for that pathogen species, and includes genes that are not shared by all strains.

“Eight different wheat lines have already been assembled and construction of a collective pan-genome is well on the way,”​ added Dr Ronen.

“The resulting pan-genome will compare the different varieties to see what they have and don’t have in common, allowing researchers to breed hardier, more productive wheat for even the most challenging microclimates.”

Pic credit: DepositPhotos​/pmmart

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