Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Monday, December 10, 2012

Whole genome harvesting

You think the human genome, with its three billion base pairs and 23 chromosome pairs, is too complex to unravel? Turns out, the wheat genome is six times as big and it's hexaploid, in other words, instead of chromosome pairs it's organized in chromosome sextets!

I've recently discussed genetically modified organisms, crops in particular, and while I still can't provide a definite answer on whether they are absolutely good or absolutely bad, one thing struck me as relevant as I was researching the topic: between climate changes and an exponentially growing population, we are making drastic changes to our planet and resources. While Mother Nature is usually able to buffer changes and constantly adapt to new environments, the changes human kind is bringing upon the planet are happening at such a fast rate that natural adaptation is unable to keep up.

I think at some point we will have to face a hard choice: either starve or give in to GMOs, where by GMOs I mean crops that are bioengineered to yield more in harsher conditions. Again, I'm not saying we should all embrace GMOs as they are healthy and good for us. I really don't know. What I'm saying is that we may not have a choice: in 2009 the FAO estimated that in order to meet the ever-growing demand, wheat production has to increase by 60% by 2050. In the 20th century, the Green Revolution met the increase in demand with the technology known at the time. Today, given the FAO estimate, we may face the need of a second Green Revolution.

With this in mind, you understand the importance of sequencing the wheat genome, a task that is complicated by the complexity of the genome itself. Its three sets of chromosome pairs originated first from the hybridization of two diploid wild grasses, which originated tetraploid wheats (two sets of chromosome pairs) like durum wheat. After thousand years of domestications, these underwent a further hybridization, yielding the hexaploid wheats commonly used today to make bread. Domestication led to a bottleneck in genome variety, nonetheless, the wheat genome has a high percentage of repeats (roughly 80%, mostly retroelements) that yield great variation in length and gene order, making it difficult to sequence.

Despite these obstacles, two papers [1,2] in the latest issue of Nature report using both whole-genome 454 sequencing and shotgun sequencing to assemble the genome of bread wheat and barley. Both sequencing methods have the shortcoming of being applicable to very short regions, and therefore additional work is required to reassemble the full genome out of the various short sequences.

Interestingly, the wheat genome appears to implement a lot of the variation mechanisms I've been extensively discussing here on the blog:
"Several classes of plant DNA transposons and retroelements create and amplify gene fragments, disrupt genes and create pseudogenes, which can influence gene expression through epigenetic mechanisms [1]."
Similarly, in barley:
"Abundant alternative splicing, premature termination codons and novel transcriptionally active regions suggest that post-transcriptional processing forms an important regulatory layer. Survey sequences from diverse accessions reveal a landscape of extensive single-nucleotide variation [2]."
Brenchley et al. [1] conclude:
"Major efforts are underway to improve wheat productivity by increasing genetic diversity in breeding materials and through genetic analysis of traits43. The genomic resources that we have developed promise to accelerate progress by facilitating the identification of useful variation in genes of wheat landraces and progenitor species, and by providing genomic landmarks to guide progeny selection. Analysis of complex polygenic traits such as yield and nutrient use efficiency will also be accelerated, contributing to sustainable increases in wheat crop production [1]."

[1] Brenchley, R., Spannagl, M., Pfeifer, M., Barker, G., D’Amore, R., Allen, A., McKenzie, N., Kramer, M., Kerhornou, A., Bolser, D., Kay, S., Waite, D., Trick, M., Bancroft, I., Gu, Y., Huo, N., Luo, M., Sehgal, S., et al. (2012). Analysis of the bread wheat genome using whole-genome shotgun sequencing Nature, 491 (7426), 705-710 DOI: 10.1038/nature11650

[2] Mayer, K., Waugh, R., Langridge, P., Close, T., Wise, R., Graner, A., Matsumoto, T., Sato, K., Schulman, A., et al. (2012). A physical, genetic and functional sequence assembly of the barley genome Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature11543

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