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The North American Wheat Workers' Workshop was held in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, from March 12-14. Traveling to Canada in mid-March is risky, but with the exception of a couple of inches of snow the weather was cooperative. This small but very active workshop covered a great many issues and for a complete agenda I refer you to http://www.wheatworkers.ca. This was the first time that I or Gramene had attended this workshop, and although many individuals at Gramene may be more familiar with the issues of discussion, I was able to jump in over my head and learn a lot of things about the science of grain wheat.
Did you know that wheat stem rust has historically caused epidemic losses of 50-75% in many countries across many continents? Did you know that cereal stem rust was considered a weapon of the Cold war!? On the positive side, breeding programs have improved resistant varieties of wheat so it has not been a problem for farmers growing resistant varieties. But our food supply is still not secure - breeding programs have not eradicated problems - it's simply lead to mutations of more virulent strains. For example, look at Ug99, threatening wheat production in Africa. With international travel and winds (jet-streams) it will certainly be a global threat in the future, because most of our current varieties of wheat are not resistant to it. For more information see http://www.globalrust.org/. Researchers are also continuously working to improve control of stripe rust, leaf rust, and wheat scab. Bob Beard, from Warburtons, UK, made an impact upon the audience when showing dramatic differences in loaf size due to Fusarium head blight (FHB). Manufacturers have consistency and quality requirements that they need to achieve.
Pests such as Hession Fly, midge and sawfly are also problems for wheat, causing the plant stems to break and fall over. The concepts of a solid-stem wheat which is more resistant to pests, crushes growing eggs and impedes larval growth and tunneling resulting in less damage was intriguing to me. Will wheat straw no longer have the hollow trait giving it its name? And, as with the rusts, solutions are only temporary because of stronger pests develop. What would happen if no one was researching these things?
I was also introduced to a new perspective on food safety. With a previous background in agricultural economics I had considered food safety to be about global agricultural security issues - similar to the Cold War use of cereal rusts as a weapon. From the perspective of a miller or baker, however, food safety is related to allergens, mycotoxins, and heat formed contaminants. Educated consumers also have concerns. As a result, millers are trying to find ways to make whole grains and fibers in a manner that will taste good to consumers, reduce the development of carcinogens, and address health issues through improved nutritional density and micronutrients. These issues may be addressed in part by managing the manufacturing process, but they also are affected by breeders selecting traits and genetics that relate to these issues. For more information on these issues, check out the Joint Institute of Food Safety and Nutrition at http://www.jifsan.umd.edu/, or the Health Grain project at http://www.healthgrain.org/pub/.
There were many questions being asked. What traits are being researched, and are these appropriate traits? How do we find a balance between commercial crop development and scientific exploration and discovery? What are the roles of both public and private sectors? How can we apply knowledge about the model organisms to other crops? How can we increase teamwork despite lack of proximity? How can we improve the access of all researchers to technology? How will we address intellectual property rights in a collaborative world? How will the development and production of bio-energy crops affect the world's food supply? And of particular concern to consumers - where do we draw the line on GMO's?
The workshop wrapped up having expanded my consciousness about the complexity of the issues. Sometimes I like to challenge myself to look at the bigger picture and what it means for our future. The days of working independently may be gone for good. Any solution to the need to feed an exploding world population will require the involvement of many voices – breeders & farmers, manufacturers, economists, geneticists, chemists, philosophers, environmentalists, lawyers, social scientists and more. There are numerous opportunities for newcomers of various interests to enter this field, and students are faced with more career options than ever before. The meeting ended with an energized group asking what they can learn from others, and perhaps the next conference will include representatives from Arabidopsis, rice and maize.
Article contributed by Claire Hebbard, Gramene Outreach Coordinator, Cornell University.
With release 24 Gramene introduced the new species page for Brachypodium distachyon. This organism has several features that recommend it as a model plant for functional genomic studies. Traits that make it an ideal model include its small genome (~355Mbp), small physical stature, a short lifecycle, and few growth requirements. Although rice has historically been used as the model organism for grasses, it has some drawbacks which may rule it out as the best model for addressing the growing conditions, post-harvest biochemistry and pathogenic response of temperate cereals. Rice is physically much larger and temperamental to grow, and it is more distantly related to the Triticeae wheat, barley and rye than Brachypodium. Brachypodium, with its polyploidy accessions, can serve as an ideal model for these grains (whose genomics size and complexity are major barriers to sequencing), as well as for forages and turf grass. B. distachyon also has homologs for genes currently thought to synthesize the lignin precursors essential for biofuels, and therefore holds promise as a model organism herbaceous biofuel crops such as Switchgrass. See: < http://www.gramene.org/species/brachypodium/brachypodium_intro.html>
Plant Gene and Alternatively Spliced Variant Annotator. A Plant Genome Annotation Pipeline for Rice Gene and Alternatively Spliced Variant Identification with Cross-Species Expressed Sequence Tag Conservation from Seven Plant Species. Chen, F.C.; Wang, S.S.; Chaw, S.M.; Huang, Y.T., Chuang; T.J. Plant Physiol. 2007; 143:1086-1095.
Floral displays: genetic control of grass inflorescences. Kellogg EA. Curr Opin Plant Biol. 2007 Feb;10(1):26-31. doi:10.1016/j.pbi.2006.11.009
Enhancing salt tolerance in a crop plant by overexpression of glyoxalase II. Singla-Pareek, S.L.; Yadav, S.K.; Pareek, A.; Reddy, M.K.; Sopory, S.K. Transgenic Res. 2007 Mar 27; doi: 10.1007/s11248-007-9082-2.
Root-ABA1 QTL affects root lodging, grain yield, and other agronomic traits in maize grown under well-watered and water-stressed conditions. Landi, P; Sanguineti, M; Liu, C; Li, Y; Wang, T; Giuliani, S; Bellotti M; Salvi, S; Tuberosa, R. Journal of experimental botany , 2007, 58, pp.319-326. doi:10.1093/jxb/erl161
Dicot and monocot plants differ in retinoblastoma-related protein subfamilies. Lendvai, A.; Pettko-Szandtner, A.; Csordas-Toth, E.; Miskolczi, P.; Horvath, G. V.; Gyorgyey, J.; Dudits, D. Journal of experimental botany , 2007 Mar 26; doi:10.1093/jxb/erm022
Comparison of orthologous loci from small grass genomes Brachypodium and rice: implications for wheat genomics and grass genome annotation. Bossolini, E.; Wicker, T.; Knobel, P.A.; Keller, B. The Plant journal : for cell and molecular biology , 2007, 49, pp.704-717
The United States, Australia, the EU, Canada, and Argentina have historically been the primary exporters of wheat, although exports from the Black Sea region have grown in the past 10 years.
For more information on wheat and other species, see the Gramene Species Pages at www.gramene.org/species.