Cracking the wheat code

17 August 2018. The International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC) publishes the conclusion of its bread wheat genome-sequencing project in Science, sending scientific and media circles into a tizzy.

Why the hype?

With 107,891 genes (five times that of humans) and a genome 40 times more complex than rice, bread wheat befuddled scientists for decades. Sequencing involves, in simple terms, breaking down a genome into a dizzying number of pieces, identifying each segment and then putting it back together.

With wheat, that’s a gargantuan task, in large part because 85% of its genome is replicated—nearly everything looks identical or has identical characteristics.

What’s cooking?

Knowing how the world’s most complicated plant genome works are key to planning for a better future of food

Beyond the difficulty of the task, the fact is wheat—whether you call it bread wheat, Chinese spring or common wheat—is the world’s most widespread food crop, accounting for nearly 20% of global calorie intake.

A 2013 study in PLOS One estimated that current agricultural output would be insufficient for humans by 2050. Crop yields would need to increase by 1.6% annually to meet demand. All this, in the face of depleting land and water resources and vagaries of climate change.

By cracking the wheat genome, scientists have birthed the potential to isolate wheat’s most resilient traits. The potential for higher yield. The potential for fortified food. The potential for climate and pest resistance. Knowing how the world’s most complicated plant genome works are key to planning for a better future of food.

It has taken 13 years and 200 researchers from 20 countries to blueprint wheat. India is one of those countries. And this is the story of how it got there.

A missed opportunity

14 April 2003. The Human Genome Project (HGP) formally came to an end. And with that, Indian scientists lamented missing out on the world’s most significant biological project. Depending on who you ask, our quicksand was lack of funds, sycophancy, a cantankerous political cabal or red tape. But for the country’s most hallowed molecular scientist, it was all of the above.

Pushpa Mittra Bhargava (1928-2017), India’s father of biotechnology, was as sharp-tongued as he was far-sighted. His book, The Saga of Indian Science since Independence: In a Nutshell (co-authored with Chandana Chakrabarti), unfolds like a Shakespearean drama. It’s a must-read irrespective of whether science is up to your alley or not.

The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) is the villain in the narrative of India’s HGP gaffe. A murky scientific mafia quashes everyone but yes-men and yes-women. Babus checkmate brilliant minds into subjugation. Minutes of meetings are poorly recorded, if ever. Reports on bioinformatics centers gather dust. Worse, the DBT shelves the proposal—forwarded through the prime minister’s office in 1988—to let India work alongside the US, the UK, Japan, China, France, and Germany in the HGP.

Register in the IWGSC

Yet, 20 years later, the same DBT green-lights India for membership in the IWGSC. The wheels are set in motion for global collaboration to crack the world’s most complex plant genome.

Some of the greatest stories involve the least glamour. Genome sequencing fits right into this mold. In mapping 20,500 human genes, the HGP told us more about ourselves than any literary compendium possibly can. It also fast-tracked advancements in genome-mapping approaches and technologies.

India went on to have its own HGP in 2009, sequence human protein and help crack the rice genome in 2005. We are now mapping our ethnic diversity with the Genome India Project. However, the IWGSC bread wheat genome study is a special cause for celebration…

“ Because no one thought wheat genome mapping was possible. This is a breakthrough considering the scale and implications. But it’s also just the beginning,” says Kuldeep Singh, director of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).

The 57-year-old’s measured cadence belies his excitement. Singh, with nearly three decades of experience as a plant geneticist, was the driving force behind India’s joining the wheat-genome project.