‘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’s Flamingo ‘closing forever’ following final concert in February

Whalley venue reopened under new management in January 2018

Surrey needs 350 more cops, activist tells council

‘Right now we are 350 police behind what our population requires,’ politicians are told

Surrey reviewing clothing bin safety in wake of deaths

School district confirms all donation bins were removed from its properties, citing safety concerns

Delta bans clothing donation bins citing safety concerns

Owners have until Jan. 29 to remove the bins, after which the city will charge them for the removal

The science of edible photographs on shortbread bisquits: A Surrey artist talks

Sylvia Grace Borda at Science World a week after her art show opens at KPU

VIDEO: Car flies across median, flips over edge of Brunette overpass

Dash cam footage shows a vehicle speeding across a Lower Mainland overpass

Lower Mainland teacher resigned after ‘inappropriate discussions’ with elementary students

Tracy Joseph Fairley resigned from Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows district April 23, 2018

Indigenous energy summit includes session on pipeline ownership options

Steven Saddleback of the Indian Resource Council says a session will feature presentations on financing models

Japanese grand champion Kisenosato retires from sumo

The 32-year-old Kisenosato was the first Japanese-born wrestler in 19 years to gain promotion to sumo’s highest rank

UPDATE: Accused B.C. high school killer found fit to stand trial

Gabriel Klein is accused in the 2016 stabbing death of Letisha Reimer at Abbotsford Senior Secondary

Right-wing, neo-Nazi, white supremacist groups an increasing concern: Goodale

Ten people died in April 2018 when Alek Minassian allegedly drove a rental van down the busy stretch in Toronto

Where mattresses go to die

Mattress Recycling opens the largest of its kind mattress-recycling facility in Hope

Canadian stock exchanges to conduct lottery for ‘POT’ ticker amid high demand

The symbol became available after fertilizer Potash Corp. officially merged with Agrium Inc. in early 2018

Most Read