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Agriculture

Wheat groups welcome genetic news, say more needed

* 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

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). “This is far from being the whole information that is needed to understand the wheat genome. We are nowhere near cracking the code. But it is a very useful first step.”

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.

CRITICAL FOR GROWERS

“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.

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 BASFn.DE, 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 and Peter Bohan)

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