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Wheat genome sequencing progress clarified

September 10th, 2010

Efforts to sequence the wheat genome are only in the beginning stages, the International Wheat Genome Sequence Consortium said.

The group’s comments were released days after a professor in the United Kingdom said sequencing the wheat genome had been completed.

Kellye Eversole, executive director of the IWGSC, described the UK work as “significant progress” but said far more work needed to be done.

The confusion emanated from a statement issued by the University of Liverpool claiming that wheat genome sequencing had been completed.

“Sequencing the human genome took 15 years to complete, but with huge advances in DNA technology, the wheat genome took only a year,” said Professor Neil Hall from the Institute of Integrative Biology.

More measured in their assessment of the progress was the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which funded the UK work.

Describing the researchers work as a “draft sequence,” the BBSRC said the work represents a “step toward a fully annotated genome” and is a “significant contribution to efforts to support global food security.”

Forrest Chumley, president of Heartland Plant Innovations, USA, Manhattan, Kansas, said the announcement has caused confusion, noting that many media outlets had reported that the group had “cracked the code” of the highly complex wheat genome.

Dr. Chumley, who was a founder of the IWGSC in 2005, said sequencing work is still in the early stages.

“When you think of the wheat genome being sequenced, you ask whether you have something in hand that would be comparable with what we have with rice and corn,” Dr. Chumley said. “The answer is ‘no.’ We’re just at the beginning.”

In an official statement, the IWGSC said the ordering and alignment of the wheat sequence is “essential for linking the genetic information to the agronomically important traits that the breeders are targeting for improving wheat varieties.”

The group, which is seeking a publicly available high quality genome sequence for wheat, likened the UK research to “having an unordered string of all the letters from a set of encyclopedia volumes.”

“It is clear that additional resources and effort, by far exceeding those invested to achieve the 5X coverage (announced by the UK researchers), will be needed over the next few years to obtain a wheat genome sequence” the group said.

Dr. Chumley expressed the concern that the recent announcement may make research dollars, already tough to come buy, even more difficult to secure.

“It would be terrible if funders say, ‘Why should I support research on sequencing the wheat genome when it’s already finished?’”

In commenting on the UK research, the consortium emphasized the importance of the ultimate objective, saying a completed sequencing will be a “scientific tour de force” and “the most significant breakthrough in wheat production in 10,000 years.” The group expressed its commitment to a “collaborative international effort” toward truly cracking wheat genetic code.

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