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UK researchers release draft sequence coverage of wheat genome

27 August 2010

A team of UK researchers, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), has publicly released the first sequence coverage of the wheat genome. 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.

Wheat at JIC. Credit: John Innes Centre © JIC

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

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

Prof 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."

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts said: "This is an outstanding world class contribution by the UK to the global effort to completely map the wheat genome. By using gene sequencing technology developed in the UK we now have the capability to improve the crops of the future by simply accelerating the natural breeding process to select varieties that can thrive in challenging conditions."

The genome data released are 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, significant work on 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 UK in the 1990s.The majority of the sequencing work for this particular project was done using the 454 Life Science platform, developed in the US.

Prof 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.

Prof Bevan, a member of the Coordinating Committee of the International 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."

Prof Doug Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: "Recent short-term price spikes in the wheat markets have shown how vulnerable our food system is to shocks and potential shortages. The best way to support our food security is by using modern research strategies to understand how we can deliver sustainable increases in crop yields, especially in the face of climate change. Genome sequencing of this type is an absolutely crucial strategy, building on previous BBSRC-funded work. Knowledge of these genome sequences will now allow plant breeders to identify the best genetic sequences to use as markers in accelerated breeding programmes."

Dr Jane Rogers, Member of the Coordinating Committee of the International 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.

ENDS

Notes to editors

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% 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 full sequenced genome requires further read-throughs, assembly of the data into chromosomes and significant work to fully annotate the sequence data.

The BBSRC-funded work described here is an important step towards achieving this goal.

Read more about this subject on the University of Bristol website at: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2010/7186.html

For more information on the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium see: www.wheatgenome.org

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

For more information about BBSRC's early support for the technology that led to one of the current advanced sequencing technology platforms see:

BBSRC funding supported early work which led to the current Illumina sequencing platform. Some work at the John Innes Centre used this platform on this project with the majority of work being done on 454 Life Science platforms.

Global Food Security is a multi-agency programme bringing together the food-related research interests of Research Councils, Executive Agencies and Government Departments. For more information see: www.foodsecurity.ac.uk

About BBSRC

BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £470M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

External contact

University of Liverpool
Prof Neil Hall

tel: 01517 954516

Samantha Martin, Press office

tel: 01517 942248

University of Bristol
Prof Keith Edwards and Dr Gary Barker – via University Press office to:
Hannah Johnson, Press office

tel: 01179 288896

John Innes Centre
Prof Michael Bevan

tel: 01603 450265

Andy Chapple, Press office

tel: 01603 251490