Skip to main content

Humanity now has a cheat sheet for breeding the perfect wheat

Humanity now has a cheat sheet for breeding the perfect wheat

Share this story

INRA / Hervé Cochard

The world is going to need more food. One of the obvious paths toward resolving that issue is crafting versions of widely used crops that can better grow in harsh environments, and among the big crops that researchers have been looking at is wheat. The genetics of bread wheat have been under investigation for years now, but today a group of researchers is publishing a draft of the crop’s genome, which they say will provide the tools necessary to start planting better wheat.

A faster way to breed just the right wheat

“It’s a fairly important information resource for breeding,” Klaus Mayer, lead author of the paper, tells The Verge. Using the genome draft, Mayer says, will allow people who breed wheat “to speed up the breeding to adjust to challenges." That includes anything from resistance to pathogens to adapting to climate change.

This isn’t genetic modification though. Instead, breeders would test their seeds to see if they have the specific genes that they’re looking for, and then breed those seeds with other wheat until they get the perfect mixture. Effectively, it’s a modernized version of what humans have been doing for ages — selectively growing whatever crops work best. Now, it can just be done much more efficiently.

The opportunities that Mayer lists are broad because breeders don’t necessarily know how much is possible. Rather than modifying the crops to have a certain trait, breeders are in effect diving back in to the crop’s history, searching for traits that can exist in wheat but have been passed over by genetics in most modern strains.

There isn’t any one trait that’s the holy grail for growing wheat, though. Rather, breeders are broadly looking to increase the crop’s yield: improving the ratio of wheat that’s planted to wheat that’s ultimately harvested. But it can take activating one or more of many different traits to actually get there.

“This includes things like [resistance against] diseases, pest resistance, anything like that,” Kellye Eversole, executive director of the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC), tells The Verge. "Also, things for droughts or too much water. It can be almost any aspect.”

"It takes a while to put it all together."

Eversole’s organization, the IWGSC, is responsible for the draft sequence that’s being described today by a paper in Science. It isn’t the very first draft of the bread wheat genome out there, but the consortium’s draft is supposed to more accurately describes where each gene is located, filling in significant limitations on an earlier version. In fact, Mayer himself was a corresponding author on the paper describing those earlier findings.

Publishing a draft of the wheat genome is a critical addition to researchers’ growing work on the genetics of plants. Together, wheat, corn, and rice make up the vast majority of grain crops grown in the world. A draft sequence for corn was published in 2008, and a draft for rice was published even longer ago, back in 2002.

It’s fair to suspect that these developments could have a big impact on the world’s food supply, should they pan out. In a separate paper published today in Science, researchers from the University of Minnesota write that finding improvements in a few specific regions and crops could actually allow farmers to meet the hunger needs of the earth’s growing population.

The paper also places a big focus on the actual yield of wheat, corn, and rice, as well as other leading crops. By improving their yield by 50 percent, it finds, enough calories would be generated to feed an additional 850 million people. Most likely, these gains would come in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe. The paper also notes that reducing the nitrogen and phosphorus usage in fertilizers for these crops would help to cull a major source of greenhouse gases.

It'll still take years to put together the right genes

It’s natural then to accept the IWGSC’s obviously high hopes for what will come next for wheat with the help of their draft. In fact, the consortium says that some breeders have already started using it. Those benefits, however, likely won’t be seen in the immediate future.

“It takes a while to put it all together,” says Steve Goff, the lead author on one of the 2002 papers describing the rice genome draft. “A conventional breeder doesn’t necessarily instantly know how to convert a genome into a molecular breeding program. There’s a big technology gap there that needs to be filled.”

Companies that think they can make a profit off of wheat will certainly help to fill it. That’s been the case with rice as well, though Goff notes that it’s difficult to say just how much of a difference the genome has made so far: because companies keep their work private, one can’t tell exactly what was done to achieve a certain strain.

And even though being able to reference a genome can allow breeders to skip years of work, it could still take upward of 10 years to get the right strain together. Eversole says her hope is for future versions of the genome to help bring that figure down to between three and five years. “We’re still at the beginning of molecular breeding,” Goff says, “but it seems to be working.”

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed Sep 25 Not just you

E
Twitter
Emma RothSep 25
Rihanna’s headlining the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

Apple Music’s set to sponsor the Halftime Show next February, and it’s starting out strong with a performance from Rihanna. I honestly can’t remember which company sponsored the Halftime Show before Pepsi, so it’ll be nice to see how Apple handles the show for Super Bowl LVII.


E
Twitter
Emma RothSep 25
Starlink is growing.

The Elon Musk-owned satellite internet service, which covers all seven continents including Antarctica, has now made over 1 million user terminals. Musk has big plans for the service, which he hopes to expand to cruise ships, planes, and even school buses.

Musk recently said he’ll sidestep sanctions to activate the service in Iran, where the government put restrictions on communications due to mass protests. He followed through on his promise to bring Starlink to Ukraine at the start of Russia’s invasion, so we’ll have to wait and see if he manages to bring the service to Iran as well.


E
External Link
Emma RothSep 25
We might not get another Apple event this year.

While Apple was initially expected to hold an event to launch its rumored M2-equipped Macs and iPads in October, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman predicts Apple will announce its new devices in a series of press releases, website updates, and media briefings instead.

I know that it probably takes a lot of work to put these polished events together, but if Apple does pass on it this year, I will kind of miss vibing to the livestream’s music and seeing all the new products get presented.


E
External Link
Emma RothSep 24
California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoes the state’s “BitLicense” law.

The bill, called the Digital Financial Assets Law, would establish a regulatory framework for companies that transact with cryptocurrency in the state, similar to New York’s BitLicense system. In a statement, Newsom says it’s “premature to lock a licensing structure” and that implementing such a program is a “costly undertaking:”

A more flexible approach is needed to ensure regulatory oversight can keep up with rapidly evolving technology and use cases, and is tailored with the proper tools to address trends and mitigate consumer harm.


Welcome to the new Verge

Revolutionizing the media with blog posts

Nilay PatelSep 13
A
The Verge
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Get ready for some Netflix news.

At 1PM ET today Netflix is streaming its second annual Tudum event, where you can expect to hear news about and see trailers from its biggest franchises, including The Witcher and Bridgerton. I’ll be covering the event live alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, and you can also watch along at the link below. There will be lots of expected names during the stream, but I have my fingers crossed for a new season of Hemlock Grove.


A
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Looking for something to do this weekend?

Why not hang out on the couch playing video games and watching TV. It’s a good time for it, with intriguing recent releases like Return to Monkey Island, Session: Skate Sim, and the Star Wars spinoff Andor. Or you could check out some of the new anime on Netflix, including Thermae Romae Novae (pictured below), which is my personal favorite time-traveling story about bathing.


A screenshot from the Netflix anime Thermae Romae Novae.
Thermae Romae Novae.
Image: Netflix
J
Twitter
Jay PetersSep 23
Twitch’s creators SVP is leaving the company.

Constance Knight, Twitch’s senior vice president of global creators, is leaving for a new opportunity, according to Bloomberg’s Cecilia D’Anastasio. Knight shared her departure with staff on the same day Twitch announced impending cuts to how much its biggest streamers will earn from subscriptions.


T
Twitter
Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.