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Study points to improved wheat strains

Xinhua | Updated: 2024-07-06 09:07
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Researchers work in an experiment field of wheat in Heihe city, Heilongjiang province. [Photo/Xinhua]

A collaborative study led by scientists from China and Britain has revealed that at least 60 percent of the genetic diversity found in a historical collection of wheat has not been tapped, providing an unprecedented opportunity to improve modern wheat strains and achieve food security.

The study was jointly conducted by a research team from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences' Agricultural Genomics Institute in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, and the John Innes Centre in Norwich, in tandem with other research organizations. The discovery of the study was published in the latest issue of the academic journal Nature.

Wheat is one of the world's most important food crops. Faced with a series of challenges, such as the continuous growth of the global population, the complexity of climate change, and the gradual slowing of the cultivation of new wheat varieties, scientists urgently need to find efficient and precise methods to produce new, high-yield and high-quality varieties, says Cheng Shifeng, the leading Chinese scientist involved in the study.

Cheng's team introduced a collection of wheat varieties gathered by Britain in 32 countries and regions in the 1920s and 1930s, which are no longer grown anywhere in the world. Experiments have been carried out across China, comparing analysis of the nearly century-old wheat with modern varieties.

By using cutting-edge technologies such as genomics, genetics and bioinformatics, scientists were able to create a wheat genomic variation map, which revealed that modern varieties have lost over 60 percent of their genetic diversity through long-term artificial selection.

"This missing 60 percent discovered in this study is full of beneficial genes that we need to feed people sustainably," says Simon Griffiths, group leader at the John Innes Centre.

Cheng says: "We can retrace a set of novel, functional and beneficial diversity that got lost in modern wheat varieties. Now we have the opportunity to add them back into elites in the breeding programs."

The team has also discovered new genes and thousands of genetic variation sites that will produce wheat with high yields, high calcium content, lodging resistance, efficient nitrogen use, resistance to blast and leaf spot diseases. They have also developed genomic and genetic resources, and new tools useful to wheat research and breeding.

"This study has huge potential for the future genetic improvement of wheat, and can be used to cultivate new varieties with high yields and quality, stress resistance and adaptability to climate change," says Li Jiayang, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Qian Qian, another CAS academician, says that the discovery is a significant source of inspiration and guidance for wheat breeding, and provides valuable genetic information for the innovative use of germplasm resources.

Chu Chengcai, a professor at the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou, Guangdong, says:"This study has opened up possibilities for using ancient germplasm resources to improve modern wheat breeding. It has great significance for wheat breeding in China and even the world."

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