MSU scientist, international team a step closer to higher quality durum wheat
BOZEMAN — Hikmet Budak, Montana State University’s first Montana Plant Sciences Endowed Chair, is among an international team of scientists that is now one step closer to producing durum wheat that boasts a higher protein content and grain quality.
The 14-member team announced in a July 6 press release that it has successfully sequenced and mapped the genome – or complete genetic code — of durum wheat. Durum wheat is a close relative of the widely grown bread wheat and is the source of semolina, the key ingredient in pasta.
Using a sequencing technology developed by genetics company NRGene, the sequencing and mapping of the durum wheat genome took just a few months and has provided researchers with the complete list of genes and their locations for the cereal crop, Budak said.
Budak – who hailed the achievement as “exciting news for MSU and Montana” – said the data is the first step to understanding which genes are present in the durum wheat genome and harnessing this knowledge to produce higher quality Montana durum wheat lines and cultivated varieties known as cultivars that will also enjoy increased resistance to pests, environmental stress and disease.
The scientists will now work to refine and assemble the sequence. Because the durum wheat genome is extremely large – about four times the size of the human genome – it can only be sequenced in pieces. Using the genetic map, the team will reassemble the sequence to produce a whole genome assembly – a high quality, ordered and completely assembled sequence for each of the 14 durum wheat chromosomes that will act as a guide, or “reference sequence” for further wheat studies.
Budak said it will likely take two years to create this reference sequence and make the data available to the public. Once available, he said, the data will provide a much-needed boost to durum and bread wheat research.
“The lack of a high-quality genome sequence was a roadblock to conducting genomics-based wheat improvement studies, even with the availability of advanced genome engineering and editing technologies,” he said.
Budak said that the reference sequence will provide MSU researchers with the means to identify and characterize the desirable genes in Montana’s existing cultivars and use them to develop high-yielding “elite” cultivars with traits desirable to Montana producers.
And, the reference sequence will be used to develop new Montana durum wheat lines, which Budak estimates will take five or six years. It will also be useful in helping to identify the genes in existing Montana wheat lines so growers will know the genetic traits of the wheat they’re currently producing.
Budak, an internationally recognized plant geneticist, contributed to the mapping by identifying and also editing the durum wheat genes using the genome editing system known as CRISPR. Currently, his group is also working on using these newly discovered genes to improve the micronutrient quantity, protein content and stress resistance of the wheat.
Budak is a member of the faculty in the MSU Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in the College of Agriculture. He joined MSU after a national search for candidates for the Montana Plant Sciences Endowed Chair that attracted top cereal scientists from around the world. The idea for the position began as an idea of the Montana Grains Foundation as a way to help Montana’s wheat farmers stay sustainable and remain competitive. More than 60 Montana grain producers and several agribusinesses around the state partnered to support the endowed chair.
“This is why I was brought here and this is a great start to paying back the farmers, growers and stakeholders who funded my position,” said Budak, who came to MSU from Sabanci University in Istanbul, Turkey. “What they put in, they will get back eventually by way of wheat lines. That’s my longer term goal — to have one wheat genotype, or line, that is going to be great for Montana agriculture.”
Along with MSU and NRGene, members of the international collaborative research network who contributed to the research are The Council for Agricultural Research and Economics, the National Research of Italy, the Crop Development Centre of the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Tel Aviv, the University of Bologna and the IPK Gatersleben.
The research builds upon the earlier success by the scientists in sequencing the bread wheat genome in 2014 and subsequent production of the bread wheat genome assembly in January 2016.
Durum wheat currently represents 14 percent of wheat grown in Montana. Annually, more than five million acres of wheat is harvested in Montana, representing a market value of nearly $1 billion, according to 2015 figures provided by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Last year, MSU completed an agreement to license more than 700 developmental lines of durum wheat to Montana-based Northern Seed, LLC. MSU-developed varieties account for more than 43 percent of Montana’s winter wheat crop and more than 31 percent of the state’s spring wheat.