Start-up cracks wheat genome – in months, not years

Breakthrough by NRGene paves way to genetically engineer breeds of wheat that can thrive in hot, dry climates

Wheat field (
Wheat field (

For a decade, dozens of scientists in 55 countries toiled to figure out the DNA sequence of wheat – but were unable to meet their goal.

Enter Israeli biotech start-up NRGene, which announced this week that — working with experts at Israeli universities — it was able to map out the genome for wild Emmer wheat in about three months.

“It’s a tremendous accomplishment, both from the technology point of view and for helping to prevent world hunger,” said Guy Kol, founder and vice president of research and development at Ness Ziona-based NRGene. “As a result, it will be much easier for scientists to develop breeds of bread wheat that will thrive in drier, hotter climates. This is going to be crucial as the world’s population grows, and climate change becomes even more pronounced in the coming decades.”

“The repercussions of the mapping will be felt around the world,” said Dr. Assaf Distelfeld, PhD, of Tel Aviv University (TAU), a renowned wheat geneticist and the primary researcher on the project. “Scientists will now be able to identify key genes in the Emmer wheat and introduce them into commercial wheat via classical breeding, creating hardier varieties across environmental conditions, ultimately increasing the global food supply.”

The potential of genome mapping

Genome sequencing is the latest tool, and among the most important, available to agronomists who are helping farmers develop better versions of staple crops – the most important, according to UN statistics, being maize (corn), along with wheat and rice. As the global population grows, more, and more nutritious food will be needed. This becomes an ever-greater challenge as the world “loses” arable land to the effects of pollution, desertification, and other man-made and natural causes.

Mapping genomes for plants allows scientists to see what makes them “tick” and the attributes they contain which allow them to thrive in specific environments. This holds out great promise for helping to increase the food supply, which is one reason why, as DNA sequencing became feasible in the 1990s, scientists wasted no time in trying to decipher the genetic code that make up maize and rice.

Emmer wheat kernels (Courtesy)
Emmer wheat kernels (Courtesy)

Those projects took between five and ten years to complete, with the rice genome mapped in 2002, and the maize genome completed in 2009. Wheat’s genetic complexity and the amount of information to be analyzed proved to be a much greater challenge. The wild Emmer wheat genome is four times bigger than the human genome, which was mapped in 2003 – and 30 times bigger than the rice genome.

While the data culled from genome mapping could be used to genetically modify a crop, Kol told the Times of Israel that the more common use case is to enable more precise breeding of specific traits in subsequent generations of crops. Farmers have actually been doing this for thousands of years, saving seeds from plants that were better able to withstand the vagaries of weather, insect infestation, and other environmental factors.

Usually it takes 15 years or more to develop a strain that it more suited to specific conditions. With DNA data pointing out a variety’s specific characteristics, farmers will be able to breed crops that can stand up to arid surroundings, brackish water, and other harsh environmental conditions in as little as three years, said Kol.

Guy Kol (Courtesy)
Guy Kol (Courtesy)

Wheat genome sequencing research was undertaken in 2005, by the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC), which includes over 1,100 scientists, farmers, and food industry executives. By 2015, the group had spent $54 million on developing the genome for bread wheat (the variety used in most temperate climates) – but had not yet completed its work.

How to process 17 billion pairs of base codes?

Enter NRGene, which, in collaboration with Tel Aviv University’s Institute for Cereal Crop Improvement, undertook to map the genome of wild Emmer wheat, an ancient variety endemic to the Middle East, found in many archaeological excavations and ancient tombs. The variety, thought lost, was (re)discovered in 1906 in what is today Rosh Pina, and is used chiefly in mountainous regions in Turkey, central and northern Europe due to its ability to withstand drier and colder environments endemic to those areas.

It looked like a good place to start in the search for genetic factors that could help breed hardier varieties of bread wheat (the preferred variety for commercial production), said Kol. Using its advanced and patented big data analysis system, NRGene was able to generate the Emmer wheat’s genetic base pair codes – 17 billion of them (humans have about 3 billion). Besides the sheer amount of data, said Kol, the NRGene system had to differentiate between a lot of confusing and excessive information.

“Almost 99 percent of the code is the same in each gene,” said Kol. “The difficulty in deciphering those differences was one of the reasons the IWGSC was unable to complete its work.” Instead of the tens of millions of dollars the IWGSC spent, NRGene spent under a million dollars to map Emmer wheat.

A chile pepper field in India, where NRGene has been developing breeds that farmers can plant in drip irrigation-watered fields. NRGene mapped the chile pepper genome last year (Courtesy)
A chile pepper field in India, where NRGene has been developing breeds that farmers can plant in drip irrigation-watered fields. NRGene mapped the chile pepper genome last year (Courtesy)

Now, with the Emmer genome deciphered, he added, scientists will be able to isolate specific characteristics that could successfully pair up with traits in bread wheat that will allow for growing under specific circumstances. “For example, many farmers are adopting drip irrigation to save money and water, but not all varieties of bread wheat thrive under those circumstances. With specific knowledge of genetic data, we could breed a variety that includes characteristics that would be more successful in a drip irrigation environment.”

Besides the benefit to the world of the wheat research, NRGene’s accomplishment is also a major development for the agricultural business. “Besides wheat, we have successfully mapped over 30 other genomes, some for academic research, and others for commercial use.” In that latter category, said Kol, was a major producer of animal feed, which turned to NRGene for a genome that would help it breed more nutritious varieties of corn for its animals.

Peppers growing in NRGene's Indian chile pepper field (Courtesy)
Peppers growing in NRGene’s Indian chile pepper field (Courtesy)

In May, NRGene announced that, together with scientists from the USDA and the University of Illinois, it had mapped the rainbow trout, which will enable the breeding of tastier and longer-lived varieties of farmed fish, said NRGene CEO Dr. Gil Ronen.

“Aquaculture is at a critical juncture. The significant decrease in the wild fish population means that they must take the lead in continuing to ensure genetic diversity while still breeding healthy, protein-rich, and disease resistant fish,” said Ronen. “Mapping a full and reliable reference genome is a critical step toward efficient breeding, and the trout is simply the first of many critical species for the aquaculture industry that must be mapped.”

Now that Emmer wheat has been “conquered,” NRGene will be working on more basic crop projects, said Kol. “The world is getting drier, and the need to develop varieties of corn and rice that can withstand that is more important than ever. Imagine being able to develop a variety of rice that would be able to go weeks or longer without rain. That would be a very important accomplishment.”

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