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New wheat to help in food security

PARIS, Aug 27 – A consortium of scientists on Friday published the first genome for wheat, an achievement that should benefit food security challenged by Earth\’s surging population, climate change and an emerging plant pest.

British researchers said they had unravelled 95 percent of the genetic code for a benchmark variety of wheat known as Chinese Spring line 42.

The draft has been placed in the public domain to help spur research into improving wheat yields and strengthening resilience to disease, water stress and insects.

"Recent short-term price spikes in the wheat markets have shown how vulnerable our food system is to shocks and potential shortages," said Doug Kell, head of Britain\’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), a public-sector organisation which backed the work.

"The best way to support our food security is by using modern research strategies to understand how we can deliver sustainable increases in crop yields, especially in the face of climate change."

The data comprises the "letters" of the wheat\’s genetic code, albeit in an unpolished form, said Mike Bevan, a professor at the John Innes Centre, which took part in the project.

Further work is needed to complete and assemble the draft, although it is likely to be highly accurate after five read-throughs.

"Chinese spring is not a commercial variety of wheat, it is a benchmark laboratory strain that has been selected as suitable for studying wheat as a whole," Bevan told AFP.

"It\’s the \’lab rat\’ of the wheat world," he said wryly.

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Even though the polished version is still in the works, crop scientists will probably seize on the first draft, hunting for genetic markers that point to yield characteristics and strengths or weaknesses to drought, flood, soil salinity and pests, Bevan said.

"This should benefit world food security," he added.

The wheat genome "is five times larger than the human genome," said Keith Edwards of the University of Bristol, western England. "(It) presents a huge challenge for scientists."

Wheat soared on August 6 to its highest prices in 24 months on the back of worries about the harvest in Russia, hit by forest fires, and in the flood-hit breadbaskets of Canada and Pakistan.

Although prices have since eased somewhat, there is a longer-term worry in the form of a mutant strain of fungus called stem rust.

The peril, known by its lab name as Ug99, originated in East Africa a decade but is already likely to have spread into Asia, according to a scientific conference held in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in May.

Wheat accounts for 30 percent of global grain production and 20 percent of daily food calories, according to the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI), a group based at Cornell University, New York.

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