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University of California Researchers Examine Wheat Genome

Jennifer Martin, CSREES Staff, (202) 720-8188
Patrick Holian, CSREES Staff, (202) 720-5280

WASHINGTON, March 8, 2006– Wheat, the basic component of so many simply delicious desserts and breads, is surprisingly complex – in fact the wheat genome is five times as complex as the human genome, which took 13 years to map.

Researchers at the University of California Davis, with funding from the CSREES National Research Initiative (NRI), are mapping the wheat genome to advance their understanding of wheat in an attempt to increase wheat production and quality.

“Genomics will give us the possibility to understand how each of these genes work, how they talk to each other, and how they make one of the functions work,” said Jorge Dubcovsky, plant sciences professor at the University of California Davis. “If we understand that better, there is a much bigger chance that we can engineer that more efficiently than if we just randomly mix pieces and hope for the best.”

Useful quality and production traits on the wheat genome will be marked with a new technology called Marker Assisted Selection. The genomic traits, once marked, are called molecular markers and are landmarks in the chromosome maps that help plant scientists identify specific chromosome segments. Breeders use these markers to increase their precision in selecting the best trait combinations for their specific variety. For example, a plant scientist might mark a combination of genes known to increase resistance to drought. Breeders, who want that quality in their product, use that information to know which gene combinations to insert into their wheat variety line.

According to Mark Poth, director of the NRI, genetic markers allow scientists to test each plant to see if it has the combination of traits wanted. “This is something, through breeding trials and exposures to harsh conditions and diseases, might take you an entire career,” he said.

Dubcovsky and his team are using marker assisted selection to make new wheat types that are resistant to stripe rust, a highly destructive disease that caused $400 million in damage in 2003. The technology allows him to see results of his experimentation quickly as compared to traditional breeding methods.

“The development of these particular tools – marker assisted selection (and) understanding the gene-rich regions within the genome – have really come together. And with the partnership of those in the traditional breeding community, we can bring these new technologies to bear to achieve the kind of results we really need to keep U.S. agriculture competitive, solve problems, and produce better quality products for consumers,” Poth said.

Dubcovsky's research is the focus of the January episode of CSREES' Partners Video Magazine. It highlights the programs and accomplishments of the partnership between CSREES and the Land-Grant University System in the areas of research, education and extension.

The NRI is the largest peer reviewed, competitive grants program in CSREES. Its purpose is to support research, education and extension grants that address key problems of national, regional and multi-state importance in sustaining all components of agriculture.