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UK scientists crack code to feed

New and improved varieties of wheat that will help to feed
the world have been promised by scientists after the staple
food’s genetic code was read for the first time by a British
team. The achievement will transform plant breeders’
ability to develop hardier and higher- yielding
strains of wheat, leading to greater food security
and lower prices, researchers said.

Insights from the genome sequence of bread wheat will

identify genes that control critical traits such as drought
and salt tolerance, disease resistance and grain production,
which can then be bred more easily into new varieties.

The research will also assist the development of genetically modified wheat, which remains one of the
few important crops to which biotechnology has yet to be applied.

Such genetic improvements could help to meet a global demand for wheat — a staple crop second in
importance only to rice — that is forecast to reach 851 million tonnes by 2030.

Current production is about 650 million tonnes, and poor harvests contributed to prices more than
doubling to more than $400 a tonne in 2008. The heatwave this summer in Russia and Ukraine is
expected to cause further shortages next year, and Sir John Beddington, the Government’s chief
scientific adviser, warned recently that the world was facing a “perfect storm” of food shortages in the
coming decades.

Anthony Hall, of the University of Liverpool, a leader of the research team, said: “It is predicted that
within the next 40 years world food production will need to be increased by 50 per cent. Developing
new, low-input, highyielding varieties of wheat will be fundamental to meeting these goals.

“Using this new DNA data we will identify variation in gene networks involved in important agricultural
traits such as disease resistance, drought tolerance and yield.”

Professor Mike Bevan, of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, another team member, said: “This
immediately allows you, so to speak, to sort the wheat from the chaff in breeding experiments. It will
accelerate the speed and accuracy of plant breeding.”

David Willetts, the Universities and Science Minister, welcomed the advance. “By using gene
sequencing technology developed in the UK we now have the capability to improve the crops of the
future by simply accelerating the natural breeding process to select varieties that can thrive in
challenging conditions.”

The genomes of rice and maize, the world’s other two main staples, have already been sequenced,
contributing to greatly improved breeding programmes, Professor Bevan said. Wheat has proved
harder to sequence because its genome is vast and highly complex. It has 16 billion DNA letters — more
than five times as many as the human genome — and these are grouped into three sets of
chromosomes, each contributed by different ancestors.

Professor Doug Kell, chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council,
which funded the research with a £1.7 million grant, said: “Price spikes in the wheat markets have
shown how vulnerable our food system is to shocks and potential shortages. The best way to
support our food security is by using research strategies to understand how we can
deliver sustainable increases in crop yields, especially in the face of climate change.”

13th February 2011

This article shows one of the ways that we are enabling global food security outlined in the
policy report. We are already using science in food production as a way of increasing yield and
genetically modifying crops to make them more resilient to adverse weather conditions.
Although this article shines a positive light on the problems, the article finishes with the words
“in the face of climate change”. Although we have the means to overcome certain problems, we
are still left with the dilemma that issues that we are attempting to resolve are the result of
humans. This article strongly suggests a ‘management for sustainability’ approach, ignoring
many of the fundamental environmental issues.