What does wheat genome decoding mean for bakers?

Scientists have unlocked the genetic code of bread wheat, a breakthrough that could result in more consistent dough and longer shelf lives for baked goods.

More than 200 scientists from 73 research institutions in 20 countries have worked to produce a detailed description of the genome – the genetic make-up – of bread wheat variety Chinese Spring.

Sequencing the wheat genome had previously been thought impossible due to its size and complexity – it is five times larger than the human genome.

Published in the journal Science last week by the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC), the work is described as the highest-quality genome sequence yet produced for wheat. Scientists have said it will pave the way for production of wheat varieties better adapted to climate challenges, with higher yields, enhanced nutritional quality and improved sustainability.

Having the full sequence can have a major impact on crop breeding and improvement in a relatively short period of time, according to Sarah Thornber, agriculture section manager at consultants Campden BRI.

“Desired traits can include flowering time, disease resistance, yield, flavour, drought resistance and frost resistance. Resistance to drought and other climate-related phenomena is a key area of research, so this could help ensure harvests are more consistent and allow wheat to be grown in areas that are currently unsuitable,” she told British Baker.

For bakers, greater understanding of the wheat genome may, over the coming decades, enable suppliers to develop wheat varieties better suited to consistent dough production, explained Thornber’s colleague, Campden BRI rheology and texture manager Sarab Sahi.

“Bakers would like to see stable and assured performance from their flour from one harvest to the next, so that the recipe formulation and mixing requirements are unchanged,” he said.

Sahi added that it might be possible to develop better understanding of the proteins that govern the physical character of dough and batter.

Wheat varieties could be bred to produce the right set of protein in the best ratio in flour to produce desirable viscoelastic properties in dough

“This would allow wheat varieties to be bred to produce the right set of protein in the best ratio in flour to produce desirable viscoelastic properties in dough and batter systems,” said Sahi, adding that consistent mixing performance of dough would help to better automate processing operations.

Understanding the make-up of proteins also offered scope to modify starch properties and could impact the staling and shelf life of baked goods.

“This would allow baked products to be produced without the need for enzymes and emulsifiers to be added, which may be popular with some consumers,” he said.

The reference sequence resources are publicly available from the IWGSC, whose executive director Kellye Eversole said the work in sequencing the genome reaffirmed the importance of international collaborations for advancing food security.

“The publication of the wheat reference genome is the culmination of the work of many individuals who came together under the banner of the IWGSC to do what was considered impossible,” she added.

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