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India joins 16 nations to crack wheat genome in 3 years

posted Nov 3, 2011, 11:43 PM by Puneet Goyal
Kounteya Sinha, TNN | Nov 4, 2011, 04.36AM IST

NEW DELHI: The elusive wheat genome - the most important crop globally - will be cracked within the next three years. Indian scientists have joined 16 other nations - the US, the UK, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Czech Republic, Norway, Israel, Turkey, Russia, China, Japan, Australia and Argentina - in the initiative.

The department of biotechnology (DBT) has sanctioned about Rs 34 crore for over four years to three institutes - Punjab Agriculture University, ICAR and Delhi University - for the project.

Prof Nagendra Kumar Singh from ICAR's National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology in New Delhi said, "The project is likely to be completed in five years. But, we will crack the code within three years."

Wheat has 21 chromosomes of which one will be decoded by the 21 Indian scientists. The wheat genome is 42 times bigger than rice genome.

" India had bumper wheat production of 84 million tons this year. Once we have cracked its genetic code, we can develop disease-resistant wheat faster. Brown and yellow rust diseases are a big threat to wheat," Prof Singh said.

Experts say in the past decade, global wheat production has dipped by 3.6% due to drought. It is also being threatened by tell-tale signs of climate change like rise in temperatures, less availability of water and reduced soil fertility. Besides, the micronutrient content, especially iron and zinc, in grains is lower than the required, causing anemia.

On Wednesday, 31 Indian scientists also cracked the genetic code of arhar, the second most important pulse crop of India. This is the first plant genome sequenced indigenously. Now, this will help faster development of high yielding, disease and insect-resistant varieties of arhar for higher productivity and lower prices of pulses.

The scientists have identified 47,004 protein coding genes in the arhar genome, of which 1,213 genes are for disease resistance and 152 genes for tolerance to drought, heat and salinity that make it a hardy crop.

Average pulse crop productivity in India has remained low at about 650kg per hectare for the last six decades, leading to soaring dal prices on the back of increasing demands.

Asha, the genome of popular arhar variety, was assembled using long sequence reads of 454-FLX second generation sequencing technology resulting in 511 million base pairs of high quality genome sequence information. About 85% pigeonpea or red gram ('Arhar' or 'Tur') of the world is produced and consumed in India. India imports pigeonpea from Myanmar, the second largest producer. The world acreage of pigeonpea is about 4.90 mha with annual production of about 4.22 mmt worth about $1.5 billion. India is the largest producer, consumer and importer of pigeonpea with annual production of 3.07 mmt, followed by Myanmar (0.72 mmt) and Malawi (0.15 mmt). India is importing about 3 million tones of pulses at an estimates cost of Rs 7,000 crore annually.

The huge gap between demand and supply has led to soaring prices of dal and food inflation.