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UK researchers release draft sequence coverage of wheat genome

Press release issued: 27 August 2010

The first sequence coverage of the wheat genome has been publicly released by a team of UK researchers, including scientists from the University of Bristol. The release is a step towards a fully annotated genome and makes a significant contribution to efforts to support global food security and to increase the competitiveness of UK farming.

The genome sequences released comprise five read-throughs of a reference variety of wheat and gives scientists and breeders access to 95 per cent of all wheat genes.  This is among the largest genome projects undertaken, and the rapid public release of the data is expected to significantly accelerate the use of the information by wheat breeding companies.

The team involved Professor Keith Edwards and Dr Gary Barker at the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences, Professor Neil Hall and Dr Anthony Hall at the University of Liverpool, and Professor Mike Bevan at the John Innes Centre, a BBSRC-funded Institute.

Professor Edwards said: “The wheat genome is five times larger than the human genome and presents a huge challenge for scientists.  The genome sequences are an important tool for researchers and for plant breeders, and by making the data publicly available we are ensuring this publicly funded research has the widest possible impact.”

The genome data released is in a ‘raw’ format, comprising sequence reads of the wheat genome in the form of letters representing the genetic ‘code’.  A complete copy of the genome requires further read-throughs, annotation and the assembly of the data into chromosomes.  Large-scale, rapid sequencing programmes such as this have been made technically feasible by advanced technology genome sequencing platforms, including one based on BBSRC-funded research conducted in the 1990s.

Professor Hall said: “The genome sequence data of this reference variety, Chinese Spring wheat, will now allow us to probe differences between varieties with different characteristics.  By understanding the genetic differences between varieties with different traits we can start to develop new types of wheat better able to cope with drought, salinity or able to deliver higher yields.  This will help to protect our food security while giving UK plant breeders and farmers a competitive advantage.”

The sequence data can be used by scientists and plant breeders to develop new varieties through accelerated conventional breeding or other technologies.

Professor Bevan, Member of the Coordinating Committee of the Internal Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium, said: “The sequence coverage will provide an important foundation for international efforts aimed at generating a complete genome sequence of wheat in the next few years.”

Professor Doug Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: “Recent short-term price spikes in the wheat markets have shown the how vulnerable our food system is to shocks.  The way to support our food security is by using research to better understand how we can deliver sustainable increases in crop yield in the face of climate change and an uncertain world.”

Dr Jane Rogers, Member of the Coordinating Committee of the Internal Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium and Director of BBSRC’s The Genome Analysis Centre, said: “The public release of the wheat genome data will be a useful resource for scientists and the plant breeding community and will provide a foundation to identify genetic differences between wheat varieties.  In recent years genomics technology has advanced to a point that scientists can now produce sequence data for plants with genomes as large as wheat at a rate unimaginable a few years ago.  This is an impressive achievement, notwithstanding the significant hurdles we still face to fully interpret and understand the data.”

A key feature of this research has been the quick release of the data into the public domain to allow other scientists and wheat breeding companies to rapidly employ it in practical applications. 

Richard Summers, Vice Chairman of the British Society of Plant Breeders, said: “The wheat breeding community has been greatly impressed with the collaborative approach taken in this project.  The team brought together world class skills in sequencing and wheat genetics to deal with a major barrier in wheat breeding.  This is an excellent example of how to achieve technology transfer from research lab through to practical deployment.”

BBSRC is a partner in Global Food Security, a multi-agency programme that brings together the food-related research interests of Research Councils, Government Departments and Executive Agencies.

The genome sequences released are five-fold coverage of the reference bread wheat variety Chinese Spring line 42.  This gives the researchers access to an estimated 95 per cent of genes in this variety of wheat.  The International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium, which the UK participates in, is working towards a complete genome sequence of Chinese Spring.  The BBSRC-funded work described here is an important step towards achieving this goal. 

The wheat genome data has been made publicly available via EMBL/GenBank and CerealsDB for analysis and application.  Open access release of the data was a condition of the original BBSRC support for this project. These data will now be submitted for publication in peer-reviewed journals.