The Israeli research company NRGene has broken new ground when it comes to speed in mapping maize genomes. It used to take months, or even years to map a complete genome. Now, NRGene has mapped five maize genomes in just five weeks.
Guy Kol is one of the company’s founders, and its vice-president of research and development. He describes the process they use as “transforming the information from a molecule to computer text.”
“Imagine a 3.3-billion letter book that has been given to you,” he explained, trying to simplify the process for a non-scientist. “We build the book; we make it readable.”
For farmers, this means that wheat breeders now have faster access to much better information. Breeding wheat, Kol says, “or any other crop for that matter, involves actually combining wheat varieties together.” Breeders use genomic data to decide which varieties to cross. “It takes a long time and a lot of money,” to try different options. Now, breeders can select specific parts of the genome from the “mother” plant and other parts from the “father,” with better information about what traits these parts might bring.
“Wheat’s genome is very big, and hexapolid,” Kol says. “That makes it very difficult to follow and understand.” Because of this, wheat breeding is slow, and prone to errors. Better information about the genome, he says, will “make breeding faster and more accurate.” This should ultimately mean better wheat varieties at the farm level.
This genetic information is not necessarily associated with genetic modification, Kol says. “As long as you’re crossing lines from the same organism,” in this case, types of wheat, “that’s called breeding.”
NRGene sells the service of genomic mapping and/or its software to academics as well as large seed breeding companies. Kol is excited about his job, and his company’s ability to use sophisticated technology and “turn it into something very, very useful to humanity.”