Wheat genome mapped, opening doors for better breeding

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Common wheat, the humble grain at the cornerstone of both ancient and modern agriculture, is grown on over 531 million acres across the globe and produces nearly 700 tons of food annually. New research shows scientists now are better acquainted with wheat at the molecular level, and the highly complex results are projected to accelerate advancements in plant breeding.


The International Wheat Genome Consortium, in collaboration with several faculty members from Kansas State University, has recently published a chromosome-based draft that maps out wheat’s genetic code, or genome. Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the draft provides plant science researchers and breeders insight into wheat’s evolutionary history, which could lead to more robust, diverse lines in the future.


“This resource is invaluable for identifying those genes that control complex traits, such as yield, grain quality, disease, pest resistance and abiotic stress tolerance,” said Eduard Akhunov, associate professor of plant pathology at KSU. “[Scientists] will be able to produce a new generation of wheat varieties with higher yields and improved sustainability to meet the demands of a growing world population in a changing environment.”


According to Akhunov, cracking wheat’s code was a difficult undertaking because its sets of genetic information are so vast. 3B, the largest and most complicated chromosome, contains close to 800 million letters in its genetic sequence—nearly three times more information than rice has in its entire genome. In order to extract massive amounts of information and create an accurate blueprint, researchers used a technique called “shotgun sequencing,” which splits each chromosome into smaller segments. The short gene sequences are then analyzed and arranged into order by computer software.


The methods used to draft out chromosome 3B are expected to guide researchers in cataloging wheat’s entire genetic profile. The consortium estimates that full genome sequencing will be completed in three years.


Sonny Ramaswamy, director of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and a former KSU faculty member, says that in light of a changing climate and diminishing resources, we need to find new ways of producing enough food to feed the global population. The draft genome could help scientists do just that.


“Wheat is a staple source of food for the majority of the world,” Ramaswamy said. “This work will give a boost to researchers looking to identify ways to increase wheat yields.”


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