* Wheat breeders say more work needed after discovery
* Wheat growers welcome advancement
* Wish list includes drought tolerance, disease resistance
* Seen aiding conventional and genetically modified wheat (Adds comments from Monsanto, time frame for genome sequence; fresh quote paragraph three)
By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY, Aug 27 (Reuters) - U.S. and international wheat breeders said Friday publication of the gene map of wheat could eventually help in developing beneficial new varieties, but cautioned that cracking wheat’s complicated genetic code is far from completed.
British researchers working with the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium on Friday released the first version of the wheat genome, a step toward a fully analyzed map that should help wheat breeders develop varieties that can yield more despite drought or disease. [ID:nLDE67Q06D]
“This is significant progress,” said Kellye Eversole, executive director of the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC). “It is a very useful contribution towards the final goal of a genome sequence-based platform for wheat breeding. While we are nowhere near cracking the genetic code and far from having all of the information needed to understand the wheat genome, we are moving forward.”
Eversole said a high quality, complete genome sequence should be available within the next five years.
The IWGSC was established by a group of plant scientists, breeders, and growers to sequence the highly complex wheat genome. Wheat has been viewed as all but impossible to sequence because of its sheer size.
Like all plants, wheat has far more complex DNA than animals. It is made up of 17 billion base pairs of the chemicals that make up DNA — five times more than the human genome.
The public release of the wheat genome data should provide a foundation to identify genetic differences between wheat varieties, wheat breeding experts said. Much more work remains to be done to discover what the genetic data means.
“We don’t really have a sequence in hand yet. We’re really not there,” said Kansas State University wheat breeder Allan Fritz.
Difficulty mapping the genetic code has left wheat behind other major food crops as corporate agricultural research companies such as Monsanto MON.N and others have advanced breeding in corn, soybeans and other crops. Wheat acreage has been in decline in the United States, a major world wheat producer, as U.S. farmers favor more profitable crops.
“For Monsanto, a quality wheat genome map could potentially help in our efforts to bring better wheat varieties to farmers,” said Monsanto’s global wheat technology lead Claire Cajacob.
Monsanto and BASF (BASFn.DE) are collaborating on development of a yield-enhanced biotech wheat for North American and Australian markets.
National Association of Wheat Growers CEO Dana Peterson said U.S. growers have been clamoring for advanced wheat varieties that tolerate disease better, withstand drought and heat, and make use of nitrogen fertilizers more efficiently.
She said genetic advancements should make it easier for breeders pursuing both conventional and genetically modified wheat varieties.
“This is a large step forward,” Peterson said.
U.S. Wheat Associates President Alan Tracy said he hoped the finding would spur new investments in wheat research.
Research dollars going to corn are more than 20 times that going to wheat, said Tracy.
“I think we will see major changes in they way wheat seed is bred and marketed,” Tracy said. “The new emphasis on and investment in wheat breeding is good news both for wheat producers and a hungry world.”
Syngenta SYNN.VX, which, along with Monsanto and BASF, is among the companies working on developing genetically modified wheat with improved yield and other traits, welcomes the scientific advancement, said spokesman Paul Minehart.
“It is an important step that will help wheat breeders develop new varieties and traits that are essential for productive farming and securing food production for a growing world population,” Minehart said. (Reporting by Carey Gillam, edited by Maggie Fox, Peter Bohan and Jim Marshall)