Israeli Company Cracks Genome of Wild Emmer Wheat

Startup from Nes Tziona expects development to increase yields of modern strains.

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Israeli research discover the 'mother' of all wheat
Israeli research discover the 'mother' of all wheat Credit: AP
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

An Israeli startup said last week it has successfully mapped the complete genome of wild emmer wheat, which could revolutionize prospects for cereal production and help combat the predicted worldwide food crisis.

The Nes Tziona-based NRGene says it mapped the wild emmer wheat genome, from which cultivated wheat was developed.

According to the scientists, mapping the wild emmer wheat gene – one of the most complex sequences in nature – will enable the acceleration of crop improvement research at a much reduced cost.

“Mapping the maize genome in 2009 significantly boosted cultivation of corn crops. The importance of cracking the wheat genome is expected to contribute no less, because wheat is the main source of calories in most of the world,” NRGene founder and CEO Dr. Gil Ronen told Haaretz.

According to Ronen, the wheat genome has a huge number of DNA sequences – equivalent to 54,000 200-page books – which his company had to puzzle together so all the pieces fit.

“We take fragments around 200-letters long, and have to assemble a puzzle out of them in which call the pieces match,” he explains.

Research into the wheat genome, and attempts to map it completely, keep research institutes busy worldwide. Moreover, the race to research wheat is overshadowed by a global food crisis with a worrying forecast.

Expects believe the solution to the way to preempt future severe wheat shortages is to enrich wheat varieties and their properties.

“In order to meet future global wheat demand, we need to double output by 2050,” explains Prof. Tzion Fahima, the head of the University of Haifa’s Institute of Evolution. “The current rate of annual crop yield increases is currently 1 percent and needs to reach 2 percent.”

While the rice genome was mapped out in 2000 and the corn genome in 2009, the wheat genome remained one of the main challenges for plant research.

The genomic base of wild emmer wheat is 12 billion letters, while that of cultivated wheat is 17 billion letters. In contrast, the human genome contains just three billion letters.

In Israel, Tel Aviv University, the Hebrew University, Weizmann Institute of Science, University of Haifa, Ben-Gurion University and the Agricultural Research Organization have collaborated on researching wild emmer wheat, together with foreign institutions such as Sabanci University in Turkey, the universities of Minnesota and Illinois, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and German research institutes.

“The applicatory significance is that we can see all the genes along a sequence of 12 billion letters,” says Dr. Assaf Distelfeld, from Tel Aviv University’s faculty of life sciences and one of the lead researchers on the project. “Technologically, it’s a tremendous achievement,” he adds.

Dr. Gil Ronen.Credit: Courtesy

“One of the difficulties in assembling the puzzle is that you have very many similar segments. Imagine a puzzle mostly made up of blue sky, and every piece seems to fit,” explains Distelfeld. “So the algorithm the company developed knows both how to make the piece fit and do it efficiently.”

The participants in the project took advantage of a decade of research conducted by the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC), which was established in 2005 by a group of wheat growers, plant scientists and public and private breeders; it now encompasses 1,000 members in 55 countries.

Some $54 million was sunk into the IWGSC, yet it was unable to fully map the wheat genome.

“The consortium used the method of dividing the cultivated wheat genome into sequences, with each lab working on a sequence,” explains Fahima.

The worldwide research led to many pointed discoveries and revealed some important genes along the sequence, but the entire picture eluded them.

NRGene, founded five years ago and employing just 25 employees, is made up of algorithm experts and program developers who graduated from the Israeli military’s 8200 Intelligence Unit, working alongside geneticists and crop-variety developers.

It has subsidiaries in India and the United States, although most of the research is conducted in Israel. The company spent its first four years analyzing the genetics of various crops.

According to the firm, it mapped the complete wild emmer wheat genome in one month, at a cost of less than $500,000.

While the NRGene team didn’t map out the cultivated wheat genome, Fahima says they did a beautiful job of managing a very complicated job of computerization. “We compared the data with the German lab as well, and they showed that their method is more efficient than the current method,” he notes.

Israeli researchers have a particular taste for wild emmer wheat. In 1906, botanist and future NILI spy-ring founder Aaron Aaronsohn, recognized the variety around Rosh Pina in northern Israel as the ancient progenitor of cultivated wheat. According to archaeological findings, wheat was domesticated around 10,000 years ago. Aaronsohn’s vision was that the wild emmer wheat could be used to enrich cultivated wheat, thanks to their genetic similarity.

“Wild wheat is a national treasure of Israel, and we’ve worked on it in various Israeli institutions for years, in which we discovered new genes,” says Fahima. “We’ve exploited cultivated wheat to the limit.”

Yet very few of the genetic differences with wild wheat have been taken advantage of, he says, “so when we look for new genes, we turn to wild wheat.”

Mapping the wild wheat genome could revolutionize the industry of developing cereal crops. According to Dr. Roi Ben-David of the Agricultural Research Organization, developing wheat crops usually takes 10 to 15 years. “This could make crop development more directed and more accurate, very surgical, and that’s a huge advantage,” he says.

News of NRGene’s impressive achievement has already reached President Reuven Rivlin, who will host Distelfeld, Ronen and others at the President’s Residence on Thursday.

Ronen says he is convinced the system his team developed will be a deciding factor in managing future food crises, not only by solving the wheat genome but also by mapping genomes of many other important crops consumed by humans.



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