‘Billion-piece jigsaw puzzle:’ Canadians key to 1st complete map of wheat genome

The paper has 202 authors from 73 research agencies in 20 countries.

Canadian scientists are at the heart of a breakthrough in wheat genetics that could revolutionize how the world’s most important crop can continue to feed a growing global population.

Andrew Sharpe and Curtis Pozniak of the University of Saskatchewan are key co-authors of a paper published Thursday in the journal Science that lays out the first complete and accurate map of the large and complex genome of wheat used for bread.

“This is the full, uninterrupted genome sequence,” said Sharpe, a molecular geneticist. “There’s always been the limitations of the technology, both the sequencing technology and the computational technology, to stitch everything together.”

The paper, a result of 13 years of work by the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium, has 202 authors from 73 research agencies in 20 countries.

The research effort was so large because it needed to be. The wheat genome is five times the size of the human genetic code, which was mapped years ago.

Wheat is also different from other previously sequenced genomes. Its DNA contains long sections of repeated elements nested within each other.

“It’s a billion-piece jigsaw puzzle with 90 per cent blue sky and 10 per cent clouds,” Sharpe said. “You can imagine putting together a jigsaw puzzle of essentially the same thing.”

Consortium scientists had been proceeding chromosome by chromosome. Wheat has 21 of them and progress was slow and laborious, if accurate.

That’s when Sharpe and Pozniak had their insight.

Computing technology and methods for genetic analysis had evolved quickly over the last couple of years. Sharpe and Pozniak had worked with an Israeli company called NRGene to sequence another plant genome.

Why not try it with bread wheat?

“The chromosome by chromosome approach would have worked, but it’s very, very time-consuming,” said Pozniak, a wheat breeder. “There was a push within the whole wheat community to move toward the finish line a little more quickly.”

Related: Three steps forward, one step back

Related: ‘On life support:’ Research shows common pesticides starve, disorient birds

Within three months, the team had a framework sequence for the entire genome of a wheat variety called Chinese Spring. Combining that with data already generated allowed researchers to accurately place 107,891 genes and more than four million molecular markers, as well as identify how and when those genes become active.

Mapping the genome is expected to reduce the time it takes to develop new disease-resistant wheat strains by about one-third.

“The genome is a blueprint,” Pozniak said. ”Any time you have a blueprint, things are a lot easier.”

Understanding which genes are active at which time will allow breeders to predict how a new variety will perform in the field — even before the seed is in the ground.

That will help breeders develop wheat that does well in drought, saline soil, high humidity or other previously inhospitable climates.

“It’s a way to improve the efficiency of our plant-breeding programs and our selection process,” Pozniak said.

Wheat is the largest single food source on Earth, a staple for one-third of humanity. The world’s population is expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050 and food production will have to grow by 60 per cent.

That challenge must be met by environmentally sustainable means at a time when climate change is shifting the rules of agriculture everywhere on the planet.

Sharpe knows how important the wheat genome is. He can barely express how he felt when he saw the first results back from Israel and realized the approach was working.

“You end up with days that don’t go so well. An experiment doesn’t work or a machine breaks down.

“But that’s more than made up when you see something that comes out of the pipeline which meets your most optimistic estimations. It’s great when that happens.”

The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Surrey lotto winner plans Disney trip and aims to be ‘responsible’ with winnings

Local dad Simon McNeil bought ticket at grocery store in North Delta

Surrey Councillor Laurie Guerra resigns as AutismBC director amid SOGI controversy

AutismBC president Gary Robins says her resignation is effective Nov. 12

‘Iron Road West’ launches this Friday from Cloverdale rail station

Illustrative history on B.C. railways is White Rock author Derek Hayes’ 18th book

BC Ferries passengers wait to leave Vancouver Island after Remembrance Day

Traffic aboard BC Ferries slows after Remembrance Day long weekend

Surrey Mounties investigate drive-by shooting in Fleetwood

It happened Monday afternoon in the 8000-block of 153A Street. Police say no victim has been located.

VIDEO: Amazon to split second HQ between New York, Virginia

Official decision expected later Tuesday to end competition between North American cities to win bid and its promise of 50,000 jobs

B.C. cheese linked to 5 E. Coli cases

People are asked to throw out or return ‘Qualicum Spice’ cheese

Hockey legends come to B.C.

Greats including Bossy, Dionne, Hawerchuk, Howe, Lafleur and Parent at Langley Events Centre

Canada Post no longer guarantees delivery times amid more rotating strikes

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers closed two major processing centres in Ontario and B.C.

McGill students vote overwhelmingly to change Redmen team nickname

Student union held a referendum after a campaign by Indigenous students

B.C. university Pride group replaces white supremacy posters

Around 50 people walked through downtown Victoria to share posters of love

B.C. to invest $492 million in affordable homes

72 new projects are part of a 10-year, $1.9-billion strategy

Around the BCHL: Surrey Eagles sliding and Cassidy Bowes flows

Around the BCHL is a look at what’s happening in the league and around the junior A world.

Pit bull cross, chihuahua owners must split costs for dogfight damage, judge rules

Eac side responsible for $577.43 towards injuries in Comox Valley incident

Most Read