New wheat genome research earns public dough

Canada’s role in a research program aimed at further cracking wheat’s complex genetic code, opening the door for faster development of new varieties, has now picked up the bulk of its funding.

The federal and Saskatchewan governments on Friday announced $4.102 million and $1.534 million respectively for an $8.507 million project dubbed Canadian Triticum Advancement through Genomics (CTAG), marking Canada’s contribution to the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC).

“This investment in research will undoubtedly strengthen and advance cereal breeding programs across Western Canada,” Western Grains Research Foundation chairman Keith Degenhardt said in the governments’ joint release Friday.

“With the potential to accelerate the crop breeding cycle and speed the release of improved varieties to the market, this project is a worthwhile and powerful investment that will provide a great return for crop producers,” he said. The WGRF will put up $1.127 million for the project.

The three-year CTAG project aims to help geneticists and breeders to characterize wheat’s genes at the “most fundamental level,” meaning the plant’s DNA sequence, the governments said.

Wheat’s DNA sequence “holds the key to genetic improvements, allowing growers to meet the increasing demands for high-quality food and feed produced in an environmentally sensitive, sustainable and profitable manner.”

The DNA of other crops such as corn, soy and rice has been sequenced in recent years for significant trait development. Wheat’s relatively complex genome — which scientists have said is five times larger than the human genome — has held back such development, leaving wheat breeders with relatively few tools to select at the genetic level for the breeding traits they need.

The IWGSC has said its goal for this worldwide research is a “high-quality reference sequence” of the wheat genome, which would yield “high-resolution links” between wheat traits and variations in the DNA of different wheat varieties.

“Stress issues”

“Up till now, cereal crops like wheat have been getting less and less competitive to grow each year; wheat is becoming a crop I have to grow for rotations instead of a crop I want to grow,” Stephen Vandervalk, a farmer at Fort Macleod, Alta. and president of Grain Growers of Canada, said in a separate release Friday.

“It is imperative that increased investment dollars continue to focus on improving wheat and our Canadian cereal crops to build better wheat strains suited to our climate, helping our farmers deal with unique stress issues” by developing traits such as cold hardiness, drought tolerance, and resistance to crop diseases and insects, he said.

The federal $4.1 million for CTAG will flow through Genome Canada’s 2010 Large Scale Applied Research Project Competition, which was announced in March this year as part of $60 million in federal funding for applied genomics research projects meant to help “improve key sectors of the Canadian economy.”

Saskatchewan’s $1.5 million will come through the province’s Agriculture Development Fund. CTAG research in the province will be led by Curtis Pozniak and Pierre Hucl at the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan.

Other CTAG funding partners include India’s National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute ($999,999), Viterra ($120,578), Genome Alberta ($207,779), the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund ($295,636) and France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research ($120,000).

“We need to see more of this type of public/private research collaboration,” Gerrid Gust, a farmer at Davidson, Sask. and chair of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, said in a separate release Friday. “Collaboration and the sharing of knowledge will put improved varieties into the hands of farmers faster.”

“High utility”

Scientists at Britain’s University of Liverpool said last August they had “decoded” the wheat genome, but the IWGSC said in September that the British team’s claims were “premature.”

The sequence readings that the British team produced “could be viewed as similar to having an unordered string of all of the letters from a set of encyclopedia volumes,” the consortium said at the time.

The consortium was then quoted as saying the Liverpool team’s claim could well have jeopardized international efforts to “truly achieve a genome sequence with high utility for wheat in the next five years.”

Wheat production today contributes about $4 billion a year to the Canadian ag industry, making up over 20 per cent of Canadian farm crop income during the years 2005 to 2009, with a total value of about $11 billion when factoring in value-added food processing, the federal government said Friday.

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