BGU Researcher Helps Publish first-ever Wild Emmer Wheat Genome

‚ÄčA global team of researchers has published the first-ever Wild Emmer wheat genome sequence in Science Magazine. Wild Emmer wheat which was discovered by Aharon Aharonson in 1906 near Rosh Pinah, Israel, is the original form of nearly all the domesticated wheat in the world, including durum (pasta) and bread wheat.

Wild emmer was one of the first crops that was domesticated 10,000 years ago, which was a critical step in moving from hunting and gathering to an agricultural society. Wild Emmer is too low-yielding to be of use to farmers today, but it is a source of novel variation that can help to improve the nutritional quality of grain as well as tolerance to diseases and water-limiting conditions.


“From a biological and historical viewpoint, we have created a time tunnel that we can use to examine wheat from before the origins of agriculture," said Dr. Assaf Distelfeld, from Tel Aviv University, who led the project. By knowing the genetic code of wild emmer, scientists can now compare its DNA to modern varieties to gain a better understanding how humanity transformed this wild plant into a modern, high-yielding durum wheat. With that information, they can better understand the genes that provide important traits such as drought and heat tolerance, or resistance to various diseases and pests.


Comparison to modern wheat has allowed them to identify the precise genes that allowed domestication of wheat. For example, while the seeds of wild wheat readily fall off the plant and scatter (a process called shattering), a change in two genes means that in domesticated wheat, the seeds remain attached to the stalk, and it is this trait that enable humans to harvest wheat.


The wild emmer wheat genome is much more complex than most of the other crops and has a genome three times the size of a human genome, containing ~65 thousand genes. For the first time, the sequences of the 14 chromosomes of wild emmer wheat are collapsed into a refined order, thanks to unique computational technology that was developed by NRGene from Ness-Ziona.


“We have discovered that over 80% of the wild emmer genome consists of mobile elements (transposons)", said Prof. Khalil Kashkush, from the Department of Life Sciences at Ben-Gurion University, who was involved in the project.  Transposons are DNA fragments that have the ability to move from one site to another in the genome, and they exist in all living organisms. One of the research directions of Prof. Kashkush's lab, supported by a grant from the Israel Science Foundation, is to understand the role of transposons in shaping the wheat genome throughout its evolution.


Wheat accounts for almost 20% of the calories humans consume worldwide, so a strong focus on improving the yield and quality of wheat is essential for our future food supply.