‘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

B.C. Legions in need of young members to continue aiding veterans into the future

Lest we forget what thousands of men and women did to fight for Canada’s freedoms – but without new membership, many Legion chapters face dwindling numbers

Kitimat commits itself to the global fight against polio

Mayor Phil Germuth signs a proclamation

$2 million landfill capping complete

The purpose is to minimize potential leaching of contaminants from the site.

Pipeline company urges rejection of many seeking intervener status in jurisdictional hearings

Those seeking to participate include District of Kitimat and Haisla Nation

North Coast figure skater to star in Dancing On Ice

Carlotta Edwards learned to skate in Prince Rupert, before becoming a star with millions of viewers

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

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

3 random words mark every spot on earth

Innovative mapping system assigns three word combinations to 57 trillion 3 metre squares

Most fatal overdose victims did not have recent police contact: Stats Canada

11 per cent of those who fatally overdosed in B.C. had four or more contacts with the police

Calgarians head to the polls to declare ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ on Winter Games

The question “are you for or are you against hosting the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games?” was to be posed to them Tuesday in a plebiscite to help determine whether the city should move ahead with a bid.

Heir’s big birthday: 70 candles lined up for Prince Charles

Prince Charles turns 70 Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, still serving in the heir to the throne role he has filled since he was a young child.

Trudeau lays down challenge to companies in bid to boost trade with Asia

“Building the relationships, building the connections, building the facility and also changing mindsets — getting Canadian companies to see the opportunities we have around the world to partner and invest.”

CNN sues Trump, demanding return of Acosta to White House

CNN is asking for an immediate restraining order to return Acosta to the White House.

Most Read