UC Davis received a $6.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation to help unravel the mysteries of the wheat genome.
Led by geneticist Jan Dvorak, UC Davis will attempt to create a physical map of a wheat chromosome – the first step that will hopefully have practical applications in developing higher resistance to pests and diseases and a better tolerance to weather conditions.
“Wheat is the most important commodity globally,“ Dvorak said. “It feeds the largest number of people and is the country‘s largest exporter … [so it] is not only important in an altruistic point of view of feeding mankind but also important for the economy of this country.“
Receiving the largest award from the NSF Plant Genome Program, the project will look at constructing a physical map of the Aegilops tauschii genome, one of the three ancestors of wheat. A physical map is a representation of the order that the genes are located on the chromosomes, according to the department‘s website.
In order to construct this map, the DNA of the genome is fragmented into pieces, which are cloned and stored in a genomic library. Repetition of the DNA code on one piece that coincides with other pieces verifies the location of these fragments. Using markers imbedded in the chromosome, scientists are then able to determine the location of a gene and sequence it.
Unlike human and animal genomes, wheat is actually a hybrid of three different species with three genomes that are substantially much larger than anything that has been sequenced yet. In comparison, the human genome, which took nearly a decade to sequence in the Human Genome Project, has about 3.2 gigabytes of DNA while the wheat genome has nearly 16 gigabytes, Dvorak said.
However, the difference between the Human Genome Project and this program is the technology. Back then, they sequenced the genome and had to put the fragments back in order by hand. Dvorak‘s department has access to technology that can do this computerized, cutting down the time from a decade or longer to within a year.
“It will take us about half a year [for the project], [which] would‘ve taken decades [with the old technology],“ Dvorak said.
The new technology that can sequence the genome at a faster rate is also more economical. It would cost somewhere between $60 and $100 million to sequence a mammalian genome, so sequencing this wheat genome would take almost $1 billion. However, this new generation sequencing platform will hopefully cut down this price tag considerably.
The NSF grant also contains funds for student internships and workshops for other scientists in fingerprinting and physical mapping. Dvorak currently has no graduate students and instead claims that the eight undergraduates working for him are the workhorse behind his project.
Dvorak said he is alarmed at the lack of scientific interest in plant genomics in the younger generation. He said more researchers will be necessary for scientific progress.
The scientific process and continued research in plant genomics is extremely important, Dvorak said. Without it, he claims, we will not be able to solve the economical or fiscal problems that we face today.
Despite the lack of apparent interest in the subject, UC Davis as a whole is considered at the center of the universe in wheat research in the U.S.
“UC Davis is one of the top leaders in the world of wheat research,“ said Chris van Kessel, chairman of the department of plant sciences.
Working with a research lab from Albany, UC Davis has a genome center that was initially designed solely for wheat. Since then, the research has expanded to other commodities.
While it will take years before this research can be put into practical use, this project is a vital first step in that direction, the NSF funders said in a press release.
NICK MARKWITH can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.