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  1. ITV Report

Liverpool professor discovers 'wheat gene' that could help poorer countries

Wheat is the most widely grown arable crop in the UK. Photo: Kirubel Tadesse Ayetenfisu/AP

A new genetic blueprint of bread wheat could aid efforts to feed an increasingly hungry world, according to a team of experts led by a University of Liverpool professor.

Scientists hope it will lead to crops that are better able to cope with pests, disease and drought.

The complex wheat genome was unscrambled by a British-led team of international researchers who analysed more than 90,000 genes.

By using new techniques of DNA sequencing, they were able to achieve in one year what would previously have taken decades.

Professor Neil Hall, from the University of Liverpool, lead author of the research published in the journal Nature, said: "Wheat is a large and complex genome; arguably the most complex genome to be sequenced to date.

"Although the genome has not been fully decoded, we now have instrumentation that can read DNA hundreds of times faster than the systems that were used to sequence the human genome.

"This technology can now be applied to other genomes previously considered to be too difficult for detailed genetic study, such as sugar cane, an important biofuel crop."

The bread wheat genome is especially complex because bread wheat originated from three ancient grass species. Its genetic code is a composite of three genomes, and five times bigger than the human genome.

US co-author Professor Jan Dvorak, from the University of California at Davis, said: "This work moves us one step closer to a comprehensive and highly detailed genome sequence for bread wheat, which along with rice and maize is one of the three pillars on which the global food supply rests.

"The world's population is projected to grow from seven billion to nine billion by 2050. It is clear that, with no new farmable land available to bring into cultivation, we must develop higher-yielding varieties of these three cereals to meet the growing global demand for food."

To understand the wheat genes, their DNA was compared with that of grasses such as rice and barley whose genetic information is already known.

Comparisons were also made with the simpler genomes of the ancestors of modern wheat.

This allowed the team to assemble the data in a way that plant breeders can use to produce new wheat varieties with specific traits.