MANHATTAN, Kan. - Eduard Akhunov knows that sometimes, in order to prepare
for the future, we need to study the past.
The Kansas State University plant pathologist is leading an international
team of researchers in comparing the genetic code of ancient wheat varieties
to that of modern varieties with a goal of improving wheat for different
growing conditions throughout the world.
"In this study we have been working to understand how modern breeders have
impacted the wheat genome during the last 150 years of breeding," Akhunov
The research, which was published in the April 30 online edition of the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/04/26/1217133110, lays the groundwork
for creating new varieties adapted to grow in diverse agro-climatic
conditions across the world.
"For this purpose we compared variation in the DNA sequence (genetic code)
between ancient and modern wheat varieties. The comparison helped us to
detect the variants of genes that were selected by breeders to make wheat
cultivars that can be grown from Argentina to Norway and Russia," Akhunov
In addition to Akhunov, who serves as the primary investigator on the
project, the team includes K-State plant pathologists Shichen Wang, Alina
Akhunova, Cyrille Saintenac and Seifollah Kiani and an international
consortium of wheat geneticists from the United States, Australia, United
Kingdom, Germany, France, India, and Mexico.
The team has identified selection targets associated with wheat improvement
including regions containing genes involved in the regulation of flowering
time, development and resistance to a fungal disease.
"Our study provides first insights into the role of humans in shaping the
genetic diversity of wheat," Akhunov said. "By understanding better the
changes made to the wheat genome, we can develop better approaches to
improve this staple crop."
"This is the largest diversity analysis project so far performed in wheat
that includes nearly 3,000 wheat varieties collected across the world," he
"Kansas wheat farmers appreciate the work Dr. Akhunov does and his
expertise," said Justin Gilpin, chief executive officer of Kansas Wheat, an
organization comprised of the Kansas Wheat Commission and the Kansas
Association of Wheat Growers. "There is momentum in wheat research, with
many good things happening. KSU and its teams of wheat researchers are
positioned to lead way. This investment and work across the College of Ag
will ultimately mean improved genetics in the hands of wheat farmers
As part of the project, the team worked in collaboration with a
biotechnology company, Illumina, to develop new tools for the analysis of
the wheat genome. The tools allow for the fast, low-cost screening of a
large number of wheat lines in search of valuable genes, Akhunov said. This
information can help breeders to develop high-yielding wheat cultivars
resistant to diseases caused by fungi, bacteria or viruses, with improved
nutritional qualities of wheat flour and tolerant to drought and heat, he
The project was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National
Institute of Food and
"The next step is to perform the detailed analysis of the whole genomes of
multiple wheat cultivars using new sequencing technologies and, fortunately,
we already obtained funding for this work," Akhunov said.
In the Triticeae Coordinated Agricultural Project, funded by USDA's NIFA,
Akhunov's team is sequencing 200 wheat varieties. The data, combined with
resources developed by the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium
(IWGSC), will lay the foundation for next-generation breeding strategies
that use modern genomics and informatics approaches to improve wheat, the
researcher said. Akhunov is a member of the IWGSC coordinating committee.