Harvesting research: what cracking the wheat genome means for the future

The International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium has decoded the structure of bread wheat, which could lead to a new age of food security.

21 August 2018

So I hear that scientists have sequenced the wheat genome. Helpful, is it?

Wheat is the most cultivated crop on Earth, feeding a third of the world’s population and counting for one-fifth of the total calories consumed. By sequencing its genome, the researchers at the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC) believe it will be easier to ensure future food security.

In 2013, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that to meet the demands of 2050, wheat crops would need to increase by 60%. Understanding the bread wheat genome means it will be easier to create varieties that can withstand common problems like cold, drought, insect infestation and fungal disease.

Previously, breeders had to resort to trial and error to develop these attributes, a costly and timely process. The new breakthrough means that identifying which genes are responsible for positive traits will be much more efficient.

Was it a hard grain to crack?

It took around 200 researchers 13 years to get to this stage, at a cost of around $75m (£58.51m). Despite the fact that wheat is arguably the most important crop in the world, rice, soybeans and maize were all decoded earlier because none of them is as complex. In fact, wheat’s genome is so complicated that some scientists believed that to sequence it was impossible.

Bread wheat as we know it today is actually the composite of three different sub-genomes of ancient grasses. It is also five times larger than the human genome: by way of comparison, wheat contains 16bn DNA letters to humans’ 3bn; there are nearly 108,000 genes in wheat to 20,000 in humans.

You’re having a loaf!

That’s the yeast of it. The new discovery should make it easier to identify the proteins in wheat that cause allergies and gluten intolerance. This information could then be utilised in the diagnosis of wheat-related diseases, as well as to alter the wheat proteins to create products that are, for example, low gluten or do not affect coeliacs.

Altering wheat proteins – is this a genetically modified food thing?

As of July 25, yes. The European Court of Justice recently ruled that gene-editing technology should be subject to the same stringent rules and approval process as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Tech like CRISPR is said by its proponents to be extremely precise and therefore safer than traditional GMOs, though opponents are concerned about the rise of potentially dangerous ‘frankenfoods.’

Nevertheless, even without the use of gene editing, the decoding of the wheat genome is likely to change the way we get our daily bread.


More reformulation reports this week

Sugary sweet

A way to reduce sugar by 40% is heading to the European market, after the Israeli company that created the technique, DouxMatok, announced a partnership with Europe’s biggest sugar manufacturer, Südzucker. The company loads sugar molecules onto a mineral carrier so that more of it hits the taste buds, thus creating a greater perception of sweetness and requiring less sugar in a product. DouxMatok’s chief executive, Eran Baniel, expects to see products utilising the new sugar delivery system on British shelves by 2020.

Two of the biggest manufacturers of confectionery, Nestlé and Mondelez, have already released chocolate bars with reduced sugar using techniques developed in-house. Nestlé’s Milkybar Wowsomes have 30% less sugar than similar products, though the technology used could create reductions of as much as 40%, according to the company. Altering the structure of sugar, the particles dissolve more quickly in the mouth, creating a greater perception of sweetness.

Mondelez, meanwhile, has launched a new Cadbury Dairy Milk bar with 30% less sugar that uses fibre as a replacement.


Hot potato

The recent heatwave has devastated many crops, but thanks to researchers at Scotland’s James Hutton Institute, the British spud may be spared in the future. Researchers discovered a heat-resistant gene in a wild Mexican potato variety that would allow potatoes to grow in hotter, drier conditions without affecting the yield. This revelation means that hardier taters could be grown commercially in Scotland within five to 10 years if trials are successful.

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