Three genes isolated from wild plants can make wheat resistant to rust diseases

TAU researchers provide an innovative response to the global food crisis

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An international research team that includes researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) has isolated three disease-resistant genes from wild grasses, enabling resistance to rust diseases that cause severe damage to wheat yields worldwide.

The project was facilitated by several technological innovations that drastically cut down the time needed to identify and isolate genes from wild plant species and transfer them into cultivated plants. The three genes were isolated from plants preserved in the Liberman Okinow Gene Bank of Wild Cereals at TAU’s Institute for Cereal Crops Research (ICCR).

Professor Amir Sharon, Head of the ICCR, says that isolating the genes was enabled by several technological breakthroughs, and that these novel technologies can also be used to isolate genes for other beneficial properties. Transferred into the genome of cultivated wheat, such genes will serve to generate better wheat varieties, leading to higher yields and resistant to diseases, pests, and harsh environmental conditions.

The research team at TAU explains that wheat supplies about 20% of all calories and proteins consumed by humanity, rising up to 50% in some regions. However, through the millennia, the process of cultivation has reduced the diversity of wheat varieties. Consequently, modern wheat varieties are more vulnerable than their predecessors to diseases, pests, and climate hazards. Now, the escalating climate crisis creates an urgent need to produce wheat varieties capable of thriving in extreme environmental and climatic conditions and withstanding pests and diseases.

“Just as each of us carries only a small part of his/her grandparents’ genes, cultivated wheat contains only a remnant of its ancient ancestors’ genetic heritage,” Professor Sharon explains. “Since wheat first originated in our part of the world, wild cereals growing in our region are the progenitors of cultivated wheat, still carrying a rich variety of genetic traits that can be used to develop improved wheat varieties.

“Certain traits of wild plants have already been incorporated into cultivated wheat over the years, but this great genetic potential remained mostly untapped, since, until recently, it took more than a decade to isolate a single gene,” Professor Sharon continues. “Today, thanks to several technological breakthroughs, especially genome sequencing and bioinformatics, we can isolate new genes in less than a year. Thus, in the past year alone, three genes providing resistance to various rust diseases were isolated from seeds of wild plants preserved in our gene bank.

“These genes, implanted in cultivated wheat, can significantly reduce damage from the relevant diseases with no need for pesticides, preventing yield losses while protecting the environment. In addition to disease resistance, we are collaborating with researchers worldwide to isolate genes for other beneficial traits. For example, we work with researchers from Ben-Gurion University who recently isolated pest-resistance genes from wild wheat, and in our own ICCR we identified a new gene in wheat progenitors, that may provide endurance in an arid climate.”

Professor Sharon adds that, in addition to new methods for isolating genes, great advances have been made in biotechnology, specifically in technologies for gene transfer and genome editing. These technologies enable the transfer of new genes to crop plants, as well as introduction of changes into existing wheat genes. ICCR implements these new technologies, offering services of wheat gene transformation and genome editing to researchers in other institutes, as well as commercial companies.

“With the support of the Chief Scientist of Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture and the Israeli Center for Genome Editing in Agriculture, we have established a center for wheat transformation and genome editing at ICCR. This is an important milestone, enabling us, for the first time, to perform effective wheat transformation here in Israel,” Professor Sharon says.

“With these technologies we can implant new genes and use genome editing methods to give wheat new properties,” adds Dr. Arava Shatil Cohen, who heads the wheat transformation unit. “We utilize our systems to promote research at ICCR, and also help companies and researchers from other institutions who wish to use this technology.”

“Today our gene bank includes over 17,000 seeds of 20 different species of wild cereals, collected in Israel over the past 50 years,” Professor Sharon concludes. “This collection is unique, first of all, in the large number of species related to cultivated wheat. Moreover, a large portion of the plants preserved in our gene bank were collected in natural habitats that no longer exist due to rapid urban development in Israel. Essentially, the collection serves as a safe box for genes needed to create new, improved varieties of wheat that will give humanity larger crops and meet the challenges of climate change. The new technologies are the key to the safe box: They enable us to identify and extract the needed genes quickly and incorporate them into cultivated wheat.”

"In addition to disease resistance, we are collaborating with researchers worldwide to isolate genes for other beneficial traits."