Commentary: Working to improve the productivity gap in wheat crops

Many of our favorite foods come from wheat: bread, pasta, pastries, and cereals, to name a few. Wheat provides more than 20 percent of all calories consumed around the world, offering high protein and fiber content. In addition to carbohydrates in the form of starch, wheat contains more minerals and trace elements vital for a healthy diet than any other staple food, including phosphorus, selenium, magnesium, zinc and manganese.

Generally speaking, yield increase has been stagnating for a decade because genetic gains are no longer sufficient to compensate for negative factors, like climate change, that reduce yield in large producing countries.

This results in high price volatility and social instability in developing countries. Add to that the growing stresses on this crop: extreme weather, including temperatures and moisture, as well as bugs, fungus and weeds, all add pressure to growing a healthy and fruitful crop.

One way we're looking to overcome these challenges is by continually working to improve wheat varieties. We need high quality references genomes, however, to enable the discovery of the genes' underlying traits to accelerate the selection of improved varieties. Once we know that, we can further improve these traits through various techniques. For example, if we know which gene, or genes, is responsible for protecting wheat against a certain bug or disease killing leaves and contaminating grains, we can use techniques that make sure this gene, or genes, is present in a new seed variety along with all the other genes important for high quality and yield.

While we have access to reference genome sequences for oil seed rape (canola), rice, corn, cotton and soybean, we are still lacking a complete reference for wheat. Therefore wheat improvement is lagging behind the other crops. The wheat genome is complex: 40 times bigger than the rice genome and 5 times bigger than the human genome. It's going to take a lot of stakeholders across the industry to crack the code!  

For the past 10 years, the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC) has been developing projects to obtain a reference genome sequence of a bread wheat cultivar called Chinese Spring. Bayer CropScience has supported the consortium since 2011, and recently sponsored projects to accelerate the completion of key resources like physical maps and sequence tags to link physical and genetic maps for assembling the sequence into individual chromosomes. After a period of exclusive access to the resources we help to complete, the data recently became accessible to the wider community to support global advancement of wheat improvement. ( )

Working on a crop that feeds 30 percent of the people on earth is one of the most rewarding things I have done in my career. As a scientist working in wheat genomics for over 20 years and a founder of the IWGSC, I am really excited to see through international collaborations and public-private partnerships that we are now very close to finishing the wheat genome sequence. With this, we will finally have more efficient tools to better understand how wheat plants work and how we can help to improve their characteristics to ensure we continue to increase yield in the future and meet the challenge of feeding people with safe and healthy food.

While we've made significant strides, additional research and funding is still needed to ensure the achievement of a complete reference genome by 2018. For more details about IWGSC projects visit