(CN) – Researchers have identified specific traits of a drought-resistant variety of wheat which they say can boost agricultural production and safety as environmental changes threaten the global food supply.
In order to guide future harvesting strategies, the team examined the DNA of a wild species of wheat to pinpoint traits that can be genetically applied to widely cultivated varieties.
“Wheat accounts for almost 20 percent of the calories humans consume worldwide, so a strong focus on improving the yield and quality of wheat is essential for our future food supply,” said Curtis Pozniak of the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, co-author of the new study published Thursday in the journal Science.
Their analysis also revealed traits that led early humans to choose ancient wheat varieties over others.
“From a biological and historical viewpoint, we have created a ‘time tunnel’ we can use to examine wheat from before the origins of agriculture,” said lead author Assaf Distelfeld, a renowned wheat geneticist at Tel Aviv University in Israel. “Our comparison to modern wheat has enabled us to identify the genes involved in domestication – the transition from wheat grown in the wild to modern day varieties.”
The researchers found that changes in two genes of domesticated wheat kept seeds attached to the stalk – a trait that allowed those varieties to be harvested.
Their findings stem from the team’s complete genetic sequence of wild emmer, a wheat species that thrives in the drought-prone conditions of the Mediterranean climate. While several modern domesticated wheat varieties are vulnerable to water stress, wild emmer has genes that allow it to flourish under changing environmental conditions.
“Wild emmer is known as a source of novel variation that can help to improve the nutritional quality of grain as well as tolerance to diseases and water-limiting conditions.” said co-author Eduard Akhunov, a professor at Kansas State University. “These genes provide an invaluable resource for empowering future breeding efforts.”
The team used new bioinformatics technology to assemble wild emmer’s large and complex genetic code, which has 14 chromosomes.
“This sequencing approach used for wild emmer wheat is unprecedented and has paved the way to sequence durum wheat (the domesticated form of wild emmer),” said Luigi Cattivelli, head of the CREA Research Centre for Genomics and Bioinformatics in Italy.
Originally tested in humans and recently demonstrated in barley, the new technology will have a major impact on global food security and safety, according to the researchers.
“We now have the tools to study crops directly and to make and apply our discoveries more efficiently than ever before,” Distelfeld said.