Entente cordiale between leaders in France and Great Britain may well have been strained in recent weeks over the war in Iraq, but elsewhere, in laboratories in the UK and France, scientists have shown a united front in their aim to construct the entire genome of wheat. Their success represents a step forward in global food security and towards improving the performance of wheat in agricultural systems around the world.
Representing a breakthrough for scientists across the world, researchers at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich, UK and INRA (Institut National de Recherche Agronomique) at Evry, France announced the creation of the largest library of genetic resources, for the study of wheat, in the world.
The two scientific teams have exchanged so-called Bacterial Artificial Chromosome (BAC) libraries which when combined together, represent the entire genome of wheat. The research material in the libraries, and associated information, is freely available to academic and industrial scientists across the globe and represents the largest and most important resource of its kind for wheat researchers around the world.
"Wheat is tremendously important," said Dr Graham Moore, project leader at the JIC. "It is a staple crop for a large proportion of the world's population as well as the most important crop in North European agriculture. Unfortunately, the genome of wheat is very complex and that makes both studying its biology and using genetics to improve the quality of the crop, very difficult. "
The genome of wheat is five times larger than that of humans and includes a total of 150,000 genes. The BAC libraries are collections of fragments of the wheat genome. Each fragment on average carries one or two genes and in total there are over 1.2 million fragments in the libraries. After years of work, exchange visits between laboratories and at a cost of millions of Euros, the combined efforts of British and French researchers have reduced the complex genetics of wheat to two large freezers full of tiny test-tubes.
According to a joint statement from both scientific institutions released this week, pooling the British and French research efforts has had two major benefits. Firstly, it has dramatically shortened the time taken to produce a complete gene library. Secondly, it has resulted in several slightly different libraries, providing the researchers with some additional information not available from a single library.
"The USA would like a copy of the British/French library and China, Japan, and Australia have expressed interest in using it," commented Dr Boulos Chalhoub, project leader at INRA.
" We would like to see this collaboration set the pattern for the future, with major international cooperative efforts on a wide variety of crops, developing genetic resources that are openly accessible to academic and commercial organisations".