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Genome of wheat, the world’s most common crop, sequenced after 13 years

Ever since scientists first sequenced a living thing’s genome in 1995 — that of the bacteria Haemophilus influenzae — the genomes of hundreds of plants and animal species have been unraveled.

You’d think, then, that wheat would have been early up on that list. After all, it’s the most commonly grown crop in the world. Globally, the land wheat is grown on equals the size of Greenland.

But this year, a global effort of scientists in 20 countries made a breakthrough — they finally sequenced wheat’s genome. The project had been ongoing for 13 years.

Let’s take a step back

A genome is the entire collection of all of the DNA in all the cells of a living thing. The genome contains every patch of DNA — every variant that determines the characteristics of an organism. Every living thing has its own unique genome that determines almost everything about it.

Unravelling, or sequencing, the genome is like reading a book. All information contained in the genome can be examined, and the information can be used to better understand a living thing. In agriculture, breeders can use that information to create more productive lineages of crops or animals.

Having the genome is like having a roadmap of the plant.

“Where you think there’s a gene controlling some aspect of yield or disease resistance and using what used to take years, with this Google map for wheat we can now do overnight,” Rudi Appels, a researcher involved in the sequencing, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation news.

With the insights gained from having the genome sequenced, farmers might soon have access to wheat that grows at a higher quality, with a bigger yield, and is more resistant to diseases and weather stressors. Wheat is a major worldwide food source, so stronger wheat may lead to stronger food security. It could also be a huge boon in protecting people with celiac disease or wheat allergies.

Lucky 13

Plants don’t seem too complicated. Why did it take 13 years, then?

In reality, 13 years isn’t a very long time for such a big endeavor. Wheat has five times the amount of DNA that humans have, Appels said. It took the Human Genome Project 13 years to sequence the human genome, a project that was completed in 2003.

Last year, scientists finished sequencing another of the most-consumed grains in the world, barley, after nearly a decade of work.

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