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Wheat genome project putting Saskatchewan agriculture research on the map

By Jamie Fischer, Communications Consultant

January 2019

Wheat genome researcher
Curtis Pozniak is the Ministry of Agriculture Strategic
Research Program Chair in durum and wheat breeding
at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S).
Photo source: Liam Richards
A research breakthrough mapping the wheat genome has put an international spotlight on agricultural research in Saskatchewan.

“It’s the first blueprint of the wheat genome,” said Curtis Pozniak, the Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Research Program Chair in durum and wheat breeding at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S).

This summer, Pozniak, along with Dr. Andrew Sharpe of the Global Institute for Food Security at the U of S, was part of a team that published the complete sequence of the wheat variety Chinese Spring in the journal Science.

Pozniak and Sharpe were part of an international effort led by the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC). For the past 13 years, more than 200 IWGSC researchers from around the world have been working diligently to map the wheat genome, and the development that made it possible came from the U of S. 

While the work has been ongoing for years, Pozniak said there was a breakthrough moment. Initially, efforts to map the genome were done by isolating and sequencing individual chromosomes, one at a time. “As you can imagine, this is a slow, technically demanding process,” Pozniak said. Success came after his team began working with NRGene, a genetics company based in Israel that developed a new method of assembly for complex genomes, like those in wheat.

“That was the ah-ha moment,” Pozniak said. From there, researchers were able to assemble all 21 wheat chromosomes at once, vastly speeding up the process of mapping the entire genome.

The breakthrough wouldn’t have been possible without funding from the Agriculture Development Fund (ADF), a research funding program available through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a five-year $388 million investment by federal and provincial governments.

Pozniak’s team contributed to the IWGSC through the Canadian Triticum Applied Genomics (CTAG) project. The first phase of the project received $1.5 million in ADF support in 2011, followed by another $1 million in 2015 for phase two (CTAG2).

“The Ministry of Agriculture’s funding was critical to supporting the work,” Pozniak explained. “It was used as leverage funding from Genome Canada, a federal funding initiative. Resources from both, as well as other funding partners, were critical in generating the sequencing data.”

The excitement of the breakthrough was also felt by those administering his ADF funding.

“We were thrilled,” said Sushmita Nandy, Crops Research Specialist with the Ministry of Agriculture.

Nandy said the mapping of the wheat genome was the result of more than a decade of relentless work trying to solve an intricate puzzle.

“Through this cutting-edge research we continue to put Saskatchewan on the global map,” Nandy said.

And while the international attention is rewarding, it’s the potential local impact of the wheat genome that has Pozniak and Nandy excited.

As a wheat breeder at the Crop Development Centre at the U of S, Pozniak’s main focus is developing varieties of wheat for western Canadian producers.

“With the genome sequence, we are now focusing our attention to applying it to develop and apply new tools and strategies to improve breeding efficiency,” he said.

For example, Pozniak is currently using the genome sequence to identify genes for disease and insect resistance, as well as the complex genetics of grain quality and yield protection.

“From a breeding point of view, we’re quite excited about this new resource and we are already using it to develop tools that improve our ability to select for improved varieties,” he said. In the future, producers could see new wheat varieties available that offer improved disease resistance and produce better yields.

Moving forward, Pozniak is working on mapping the genomes of multiple other wheat varieties from around the world.

“Only looking at a single variety like Chinese Spring doesn’t give you the complete story,” he said. “You have to look at many varieties to understand the differences and dynamics of the wheat genome.”

The impacts of the project could extend beyond breeding advancements.

“One of the Ministry goals is to establish Saskatchewan as a global leader in biosciences,” Nandy said. 

The wheat genome breakthrough shows that Ministry funding supports groundbreaking research, Nandy explained, and research that garners international attention helps bring in leading researchers, creates jobs, and ultimately gives Saskatchewan producers improved varieties for production.

The CTAG2 project isn’t the only genome mapping project being conducted with funding through ADF.

The Application of Genomics to Innovation in the Lentil Economy (AGILE) project is using the very latest in sequencing technologies to complete the first lentil genome sequence. It’s received $1.1 million in ADF funding.

“The project’s goals for lentil are well aligned with the wheat project,” Nandy said. By mapping the exact molecular markers on the lentil genome sequence, researchers can target them for breeding improvement, creating enhanced lentil varieties for producers.

With two genetic mapping projects ongoing in Saskatchewan, the province is putting itself in a position to lead DNA research into the future.

As for Pozniak, he’s continuing to look ahead. “I’m from Saskatchewan. I’ve always recognized the importance of agriculture to our economy. I’ve always had an interest in plants, and wheat in particular because of its complexity,” he said. “Now is the right time to apply these exciting technologies to improve our crops.”

While he works on mapping additional varieties of wheat with his team, they’re also looking forward to hosting the first International Wheat Congress, which will be held in Saskatoon from July 21 to 26, 2019.

This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Agriview.

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