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Wheat and apple DNA sequenced, providing clues that may help eliminate famine

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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golden-delicious-applesAn apple a day keeps the doctor away, but can knowing its genetic secrets help feed the nine billion people expected on this planet by 2050? Scientists hope so, especially considering they have added wheat this week to the list of crops that have had their genetic instruction set read.

Wheat, which is a grass, might seem like a simple sequencing task, but the crop actually has a genome five times bigger than a human’s three billion DNA base pairs. Scientists from the U.K. released the list of the genetics of the Chinese spring wheat variety online on August 27 in a bid to "increase the efficiency of breeding new crop varieties," said team member Keith Edwards of the University of Bristol in a statement.

Previously, agriculturists such as the late, great Norman Borlaug had to laboriously cross-breed varieties to develop new traits, such as the high-yielding dwarf wheat Borlaug bred in the mid-20th century that staved off famine for billions. Now breeders can simply focus on increasing yield under, say, the drought conditions experienced in Russia this summer. (They will be hard pressed, however, to develop a wheat variety that can withstand that country’s concomitant catastrophic fires.)

And on August 29, another team of researchers reveal in Nature Genetics the code behind the fruit that led to the fall of man (in the Judeo-Christian tradition): the apple, specifically, the Golden Delicious variety. And if the origins of the apple are to be any guide, the Garden of Eden must have been in the mountains of southern Kazakhstan, because that’s where the apple’s wild ancestors still live. And it seems to have evolved extra genetic code to survive the mass extinction event that killed the dinosaurs 60 million years ago.

Ultimately, the hope of all this genetic sequencing is to match specific genes with specific desirable traits, such as disease resistance or better taste. The Golden Delicious apple that was sequenced is distinctly less delicious than it once was thanks to modern agricultural techniques and Chinese spring wheat is not the hard red wheat that feeds much of the world, though it is closely related. But finding a roadmap to help that vital grass resist the depredations of the fungal infection known as rust, spreading again across the globe, or produce more calories on less land would go a long way to solving the world’s agricultural problems.

Image: © iStockphoto.com / Emilia Kun





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  1. 1. igneousquill 2:14 pm 08/29/2010

    For the record, the apple as the "forbidden fruit" is a popular and artistic interpretation, not part of the Judeo-Christian belief system.

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  2. 2. jtdwyer 9:57 pm 08/29/2010

    Somehow the population has increased from about 2.5 billion in 1950 to nearly 7 billion today, despite the continuous suffering, malnutrition and even starvation of large population groups.

    If we could provide free food for everyone, I’d expect that we could produce way more than 10 billion people by 2050! Now, wouldn’t that be wonderful?

    The key to population management is to maintain the population within available or producible resources. Food is not the only resource required for sustenance.

    Humanity has been selectively altering the genetic characteristics of grains and apples for thousands of years.

    Societies of scientists that specialize in optimizing only food, or water, or land use, or whatever cannot produce the the solutions necessary for any optimal population management.

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  3. 3. jtdwyer 1:37 am 08/30/2010

    Actually, with practically unlimited food, I’d expect that we could produce a population of 10 billion in just a few years. However, I can’t guess how far the population would eventually drop to once other critical resource requirements (water, land, etc.) were exceeded.

    Of course we might first succumb to some other problem, like a plague brought on by uncontrolled populations of rats producing innumerable fleas, for example.

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  4. 4. TMK 3:35 pm 08/30/2010

    One advantage of selecting genetic varieties more efficiently is that we can select for traits that allow less growth space.

    In other words, freeing up space for more humans. Just what we need…more people…

    I would like to see less starving people with birth control and GMOs then what we have now.

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  5. 5. jbeers 5:17 pm 08/30/2010

    I’m wondering what we know about the ramifications of GMOs…I’m hearing two sides to the story and wondering where the facts fall – does anyone know of any studies in this area?

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  6. 6. Sylvan11 3:20 pm 08/31/2010

    I have the same question…have you gotten any info yet?

    My belief is that it would take quite a few years to have good evidence about GMOs being harmful to our DNA, for example…

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  7. 7. Neptunerover 3:03 am 09/1/2010

    They already made apples huge from what they used to be. Apples used to be a lot smaller and a lot tastier. Hopefully when they mess around with them now they will bring back tastiness to the fruit.
    Can’t wait till they figure out roses, so they can bring back the smell that got bred out of them by breeders interested only in wonderful blooms. Imagine if they had spent all that time breeding roses for their perfume!

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  8. 8. tiurlumphd 3:23 am 09/1/2010

    the problem is: genetic codes they didnt learnt it yet…they only wasting time and money…

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  9. 9. Daniel35 6:43 pm 09/1/2010

    We won’t get rid of famine or hunger until we recognize our animal side , that we are still subject to the laws of nature and need to start controlling our population, rather than taking any new advance to mean can expand some more. Neither God’s hand or the "Invisible Hand" can be depended on. No one has proven to me yet that God loves us, just that we can adapt when needed. But there are limits, and the finite earth is a major one. We won’t be able to build space ships nearly fast enough to ship us off to Mars in time.

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