New genome sequence will speed research on improved food and biofuel crops

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Washington, Feb 11 (ANI): In a global initiative, scientists have successfully sequenced the genome of the wild grass Brachypodium distachyon, which will serve as a model to speed research on improved varieties of wheat, oats and barley, as well as switchgrass, a crop of major interest for biofuel production.

The primary international repository for the Brachypodium genome sequence data, called "BrachyBase," is situated at Oregon State University (OSU), and helps scientists around the world make important advances for human nutrition and new energy sources.

Brachypodium is actually a wild annual grass plant, native to the Mediterranean and Middle East, with little agricultural importance and is of no major economic value itself.

But it allows researchers to obtain genetic information for grasses much more easily than some of its related, but larger and more complex counterparts with much larger genomes - plants which are hugely important in world nutrition.

According to Mockler, Brachypodium has one of the smallest known genomes among grasses, it's easy to work with and it is physically small.

"We can grow 50,000 plants in a normal-sized laboratory and do larger experiments. The plants are easy to grow, easy to genetically manipulate, easy to study and have a short lifecycle," he said.

"And what we learn from Brachypodium will be of critical value in work with other plants of agronomic importance," he noted.

Much of the early funding support was from the Department of Energy, which wants to develop better feedstocks for production of cellulosic ethanol - essentially, fuel from non-food plant material, as opposed to food crops such as corn.

It's widely believed that a grass plant called switchgrass may work well for this, but it's never been domesticated.

The evolution of switchgrass as a crop is now at the stage that corn, for instance, was about 10,000 years ago, before generations of selective breeding produced improved crops.

Genetic modification may be able to produce switchgrass that could grow taller, faster, and have cell walls that are easier to break down, or lead to plants that better resist drought or disease.

"Beyond that, however, there may also be opportunities to improve food crops," Mockler said.

"This is the first sequenced plant genome that is closely related to temperate cereals such as wheat and oats, which are important food crops around the world," he added.

According to researchers, the Brachypodium genome sequence analysis reported here is an important advance towards securing sustainable supplies of food, feed and fuel from new generations of grass crops. (ANI)

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