Bread wheat is one of the culinary staples of the human race. Nurtured, glorified and tinkered with for centuries by hopeful farmers intent on doubling yields, increasing profits and feeding hungry mouths, wheat remains a phenomenally important and astonishingly adaptable crop. In the era of genetically modified crops, wheat would seem the prime candidate for genetic sequencing and generating artificially created super-species, but the race to map the wheat genome has always been a difficult one.

 

Perhaps that race is finally drawing to a close. Last week, scientists announced that they had passed the halfway mark in sequencing the bread wheat genome. With luck, an entire sequence lies just around the corner.

 

Now, a halfway-sequenced wheat genome may not seem all that spectacular. After all, farmland staples like corn and rice already boast fully mapped genomes, with all the requisite benefits. Why hasn’t the burgeoning field of genetic sequencing completely netted the planet’s top crop?

 

The truth is, sequencing the wheat genome is no simple task. Bread wheat has already experienced extensive cross-breeding, as farmers experimented with specialist crops to take full advantage of wheat’s potential. These countless hybridizations make the wheat genome five times larger than the human genome. To make matters worse, wheat cells are hexaploids, which means they have six copies of their seven chromosomes for a total of 42 chromosomes entire. To put this in perspective, rice has 24 chromosomes in total, and corn has a mere 20 chromosomes.

 

Wheat also has an astonishingly high number of genes, with some variants containing up to 334,000. Compare this with a human average of 20,000 to 25,000, and the difficulties associated with sequencing the wheat genome begin to look a tad more formidable.

 

The recent announcement, then, represents some quite heartening news for scientists and farmers eager to isolate and take advantage of the best qualities of the bread wheat genome. With a full wheat sequence, wheat growers could select for specific traits based in yield targets or the natural landscape. The wheat crops of the future could be larger, better resistant to drought or other weather-related phenomenon, and increasingly able to meet rising food demands from an exploding global population. If anything, the ongoing genomic conquest of wheat is reason to celebrate.

 

What do you think about sequencing the wheat genome? Are you excited for the possibilities waiting to be unlocked or skeptical of scientific tampering? Start the discussion in the comments below or connect with me on Twitter @aa_murph