Two Perth scientists have used state of the art technology to crack the code in developing crops resilient to climate change and securing global food supplies.
University of Western Australia Biological Sciences School and Institute of Agriculture professors David Edwards and Jacqueline Batley joined forces with a team of scientists to assemble the first genome of the field pea.
The pair, who had already successfully decoded the genetic make-up of wheat, canola and chickpeas, spent five years collecting tens of terabytes of data in a bid to decode the pea’s complex genetics.
The genetics of peas are 50 per cent larger than its human equivalent, spanning 4.45 thousand million letters.
“The field pea was quite an endeavour, it was quite a complex genome as well. There’s lots of repetitive pieces which are very difficult to put together,” Professor Edwards said.
By identifying the genes linked to shatter tolerance, disease, and productivity, scientists can work with breeders to build crops resilient to drought, gusty winds and storms.
What we do now just didn’t exist ten years ago.
Professor David Edwards
“If we have a major storm that comes through it could destroy the pea crop and that would have major implications on the price of food,” he said.
“When we are exporting this crops, it has a big impact on food security on developing countries because they can’t afford it.
“Food security is going to be the biggest impact of climate change and one that is going to have repercussions politically. As food prices go up, that’s going to cause lots of problems.”
The discovery will also enable scientists and breeders to improve the nutritional value of the crop, increasing the quality and quantity of the protein found in the peas – effectively improving plant-based diets.
Although the study is based in the inheritance concept pioneered by 19th century Czech Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel, the pair said it was recent technological innovations, such as high performance computers, which allowed them to crack the genetic sequence of the crop.
“Mendel analysed the inheritance of different pea traits such as wrinkled peas, and he demonstrated that these traits were passed on from one generations to the next, a foundation for Darwin’s later discoveries in evolution,” Professor Batley said.
Though his work on pea plants, Father Mendel discovered genes come in pairs and are inherited as distinct units, one from each parent, and are segregated into domibioreportst or recessive traits.
“More than 150 years later, we’ve now assembled the pea genome and can start to understand the DNA basis of the inheritance observed by Mendel,” she said.
“It’s taken a while but it’s a good milestone,” Professor Edwards added.
An emerging field
Despite having its origins in centuries-old scientific observations, Professor Edwards said crop plant genomics was a relatively new field which was slowly gaining momentum.
“What we do now just didn’t exist ten years ago,” he said.
He said increased accessibility to new technology and a drop in the costs of genetic sequencing meant the field was advancing at a fast pace, with Australia spear-heading research on the field.
“Most of our research comes from international companies who come specifically to us because we are global leaders in this area,” he said.
“Any students who are going through school and who are thinking of new opportunities and new jobs this is definitely [a field] where there’s going to be a huge demand.”
However, he said there was still a need for education about the looming threats of climate change, particularly at a government level.
“I think there’s greater awareness, but I think the urgency still isn’t there – especially among the politicians,” he said.
“We can improve the crops as much as we can but if they’re still building coal-fired power stations it’s kind of defeating object because we’ll never be able to improve them forever.”