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How Adaptation Works: Major Scientific Breakthrough Will Increase Wheat Yields

A TEAM of British researchers has cracked one of the toughest genetic codes of any plant with the first mapping of a wheat genome – a genome five times larger than its human equivalent.

Plant experts have described the breakthrough, which reveals 95 per cent of all wheat genes, as ‘a major scientific discovery’ which will help farmers across the world increase wheat yields to meet growing global demand for food.

Professor Michael Bevan from the John Innes Centre, the UK’s centre of excellence in plant science, said the discovery held the key to genetic improvements, such as drought or salt resistance and improved crop quality, to allow a significant boost to production in the UK and elsewhere.

“With the world population growing and the spectre of climate change this is very timely,” he said. “The genome sequences on most other major crops, such as rice or maize, are already known and as a result their yields are in advance of demand. But in wheat the advances have not been made leaving a gap between supply and demand.”

Wheat is the most widely sown crop in the UK, grown on around 2 million hectares per year. But despite its importance and the ideal growing conditions, UK yields increased by a modest one per cent per year between 1960 and 1990 and have all but stagnated since, as genetic potential has been exhausted.

In a bid to reverse the trend and gain maximum benefit from their work, the team of UK researchers, who were funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), have publicly released their sequence coverage data.

Scientists and plant breeders will now use the data to develop new varieties through accelerated conventional breeding and other technologies.

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