Israeli scientists help international team sequence wild wheat genome

Research expected to increase yields, improve nutrition, reduce water usage.

Wild Emmer wheat  (photo credit: RAZ AVNI OF TAU)
Wild Emmer wheat
(photo credit: RAZ AVNI OF TAU)
An international team headed by a plant scientist from Tel Aviv University has for the first time sequenced the wild emmer wheat genome and published it in the prestigious journal Science.
Wild emmer is the original form of nearly all domesticated wheat, including durum, used in pasta, and bread wheat. Wild emmer is too low-yielding to have any commercial value today, but it contains many attractive characteristics used by plant breeders to improve other varieties of wheat.
“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 Dr. Assaf Distelfeld, who led the study. “Our comparison to modern wheat has enabled us to identify the precise genes that allowed domestication – the transition from wheat grown in the wild to modern-day varieties. While the seeds of wild wheat readily fall off the plant and scatter, a change in two genes meant that, in domesticated wheat, the seeds remained attached to the stalk; it is this trait that enabled humans to harvest wheat.”
“Our ability to generate the wild emmer wheat genome sequence so rapidly is a huge step forward in genomic research,” said Dr. Curtis Pozniak from the University of Saskatchewan, a project team member and chairman of the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Research Program. “Wheat accounts for almost 20% 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.”
Distelfeld – of TAU ’s School of Plant Sciences and Food Security and Institute for Cereal Crops Improvement – headed the collaborative study with scientists from around the world, representing institutions that included the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Tel Aviv University; the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot; and Ness Ziona-based NRGene, which developed the bioinformatics technology that accelerated the research.
“This research is a synergistic partnership among public and private entities,” said Dr. Daniel Chamovitz, dean of TAU ’s George Wise Faculty of Life Sciences, who was also involved in the research. “Ultimately, this research will have a significant impact on global food security.”
“New genomic tools are already being implemented to identify novel genes for wheat production improvement under changing environment,” explained the Hebrew University’s Dr. Zvi Peleg. “While many modern wheat cultivars are susceptible to water stress, wild emmer has undergone a long evolutionary history under the drought-prone Mediterranean climate. Thus, utilization of the wild genes in wheat-breeding programs promotes producing more yield for less water.”
“This new resource allowed us to identify a number of other genes controlling main traits that were selected by early humans during wheat domestication and that served as foundation for developing modern wheat cultivars,” said Dr. Eduard Akhunov of Kansas State University. “These genes provide invaluable resource for empowering future breeding efforts. 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.”
“The wheat genome is much more complex than most of the other crops and has a genome three times the size of a human genome,” said NRGene CEO Dr. Gil Ronen.
“Still, the computational technology we developed has allowed us to quickly assemble the very large and complex genome found in wild emmer’s 14 chromosomes – to a standard never achieved before in genomic studies.”
“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. Now we can better understand how humanity transformed this wild plant into a modern, high-yielding durum wheat,” said Dr. Luigi Cattivelli, coauthor of the work and coordinator of the International Durum Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium.