Scientists at the University of Liverpool have succeeded in decoding the genome of wheat in a breakthrough which could help crop breeders increase the yield of British wheat varieties.

It is the largest genome to be sequenced to date, and while the sequencing of the human genome took 15 years to complete, huge advances in DNA technology meant the wheat genome took only a year, according to professor Neil Hall, from the Institute of Integrative Biology.

Liverpool scientists in collaboration with the University of Bristol and the John Innes Centre will make the DNA data available to crop breeders to help them select key agricultural traits for breeding. 

“The information we have collected will be invaluable in tackling the problem of global food shortage. We are now working to analyse the sequence to highlight natural genetic variation between wheat types, which will help significantly speed up current breeding programmes,” added Hall.

Bread wheat is worth more than £2 billion to the UK’s agricultural industry, and is one of the most important food crops in the world, with an estimated world harvest of more than 550 million tonnes.

Said Dr Anthony Hall: “Wheat production is already under pressure with failures in the Russian harvest driving up world wheat prices. It is predicted that within the next 40 years world food production will need to be increased by 50%.

He added: “Developing new, low input, high yielding varieties of wheat, will be fundamental to meeting these goals.  Using this new DNA data we will identify variation in gene networks involved in important agricultural traits such as disease resistance, drought tolerance and yield.”

Alex Waugh, director general of the National Association of British and Irish Millers said that in the long run, these findings should enable crop breeders to develop new varieties of wheat more quickly. “It currently takes around 10-12 years to develop new varieties, but this should come down,” he said.

He added that the process of establishing which of the characteristics in the wheat genome are most useful for new varieties will still be a complex process as the genome contains three sets of chromosomes. “It’s a big step forward but there’s still a lot of work to be done in order to translate these findings into real change.

“However the more we understand, the better able we will be to meet future production requirements and importantly to use resources more efficiently, making agricultural production more sustainable.”

The project was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and was undertaken at the University’s Centre for Genomic Research.