An international consortium, including researchers from the University of Saskatchewan, has sequenced the entire genome of durum wheat. The announcement was made this week after an article was published in Nature Genetics on Monday.

The lead author of the manuscript was Curtis Pozniak from the University of Saskatchewan.

“Durum is an important crop here in Western Canada, and we do quite a bit of research and breeding on durum wheat,” Pozniak explained. “The durum wheat genome represents the blueprint of the important traits that we’re targetting for our producers like yield, disease resistance and these qualities. For the first time, we have that blueprint.”

Among the discoveries made during the sequencing was the identification of the gene in durum wheat responsible for the accumulation of cadmium. Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal which is found in many soils, including here in Saskatchewan.

Pozniak was part of the team which made the discovery, along with Gregory Taylor and Neil Harris from the University of Alberta.

Pozniak said in the past, cadmium levels in durum would result in restrictions in the sale of durum, as some countries have strict limits on the amount of cadmium in the grain. Using the genome sequence, they were able to find the specific gene which was causing it to happen. By isolating the gene, they can now lower the amount of cadmium in the grain.

The work wasn’t done strictly at the University of Saskatchewan.

Over the past three years, researchers got together as an international community. Over time, the more than 60 scientists at seven institutions around the world worked to get the sequencing complete, which included a lot of analysis and resulted in the publication of the paper.

“We worked with countries like Italy, the U.S., Germany, Australia and seven other,” Pozniak said. “Really what we were trying to do there is to capture on the expertise, the global expertise that we have on the crop, and bring that all together so that we could analyze data in a way that any one group couldn’t do on their own, so truly an international effort.

“This is an exciting development for durum farmers as it will mean wheat breeders will be able to produce varieties with improved yields and resistance to disease, pests, and environmental stressors quicker than before,” said Laura Reiter, Chair of the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission board of directors, who farms near Radisson, Saskatchewan.

Durum is primarily used as the raw material for pasta, a food staple around the world.

The scientists working on the project compared the durum sequence to its wild relatives and were able to find the genes humans have been selecting over the centuries. The work also allowed the recovery of beneficial genes lost in the centuries of breeding.

Funding for the project was provided by CREA; the Italian Ministry of Education University and Research Projects InterOmics and PON-ISCOCEM; Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada; Genome Canada and Genome Prairie; Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture and Government of Canada through the Agriculture Development Fund; Western Grains Research Foundation; Saskatchewan Wheat Commission; Alberta Wheat Commission; Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association; Fondazione AGER; University of Bologna; Binational Science Foundation; Israel Science Foundation; U.S. Department of Agriculture; German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture; and German Ministry of Education and Research.

The research was published in the most recent edition of Nature Genetics. Access to the genome is available through the scientific database GrainGenes.

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