First member of the wheat and barley group of grasses is sequenced

A few grass species provide the bulk of our food supply and new grass crops are being domesticated for sustainable energy and feedstock production.

However there are significant barriers limiting crop improvement, such as a lack of knowledge of gene function and their large and complex genomes.

In Nature, an international consortium led by the John Innes Centre, the US Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute, the US Department of Agriculture and Oregon State University present an analysis of the complete genome sequence of the wild grass Brachypodium distachyon.

Three different groups of grasses, represented by maize, rice and wheat, provide most of the grains that support human nutrition and our domesticated animals.

The genomes of two of these three groups have been sequenced. Brachypodium distachyon is the first member of the third group, which contains key food and fodder crops such as wheat, barley and forage grasses, to be sequenced.

Analysis of the compact Brachypodium genome has provided new insights into how grass genomes evolve and expand and it has demonstrated how Brachypodium can be used to navigate the closely related yet far larger and more complex genomes of wheat and barley. 

“Our analysis of the Brachypodium genome is a key resource for securing sustainable supplies of food, feed and fuel from established crops such as wheat, barley and forage grasses and for the development of crops for bioenergy and renewable resource production”, stated Michael Bevan from the John Innes Centre.

“It is already being widely used by crop scientists to identify genes in wheat and barley, and it is defining new approaches to large-scale genome analysis of these crops, because of the high degree of conserved gene structure and organisation we identified”. 

Brachypodium also has other important features, including a rapid life cycle and a very compact growth habit, making it ideal for laboratory studies.  Philippe Vain is leading a programme at the John Innes Centre aimed at providing scientists with resources to identify gene functions.

“Scientists can now use genetic resources we are developing in Brachypodium to determine the functions of genes involved in grass crop productivity. This has the potential to accelerate research in sustainable food production and in new sources of energy”.

Scientists at the John Innes Centre and their colleagues are working on projects aimed at enhancing food security and creating sustainable industries.

The John Innes Centre, supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the John Innes Foundation, is committed to creating the resources and understanding needed for sustainable food and fuel production. 

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