The Peculiar Complexity of Wheat
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Wheat has a power we don’t often talk about. It makes up 20% of the calories consumed by people. In fact, it’s difficult for those with celiac disease to find food that doesn’t contain wheat. Last year, cereal maker Weetabix announced that it would have to scale back production of some of its products dues to a poor wheat harvest in the UK. Even for the sake of Weetabix, scientist still cannot understand how wheat works. But they’re working on it. Norwich’s Genome Analysis Centre is apart of the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium designed to help scientists understand wheat’s genetic structure and use this knowledge to help wheat resist disease and grow better.

Life for Forrest Gump might be like a box of chocolates, but for research scientists at the Genome Analysis Centre, its like a box of DNA samples. These samples arrives every morning, and they never know what they’re gonna get. Leah Clissold is on the Sequencing Operations Team at the Genome Analysis Centre. Machines designed to analyze and sequence, or rescramble, the DNA, are scattered throughout the lab.

“So this is where we receive the DNA and they undergo a series of QC checks just to check the quality of the DNA,” Leah Clissold said.

QC is quality control. Once that’s done, the DNA is ready to be sequenced. So basically, the DNA molecules contain nucleotides. The nucleotides have four bases -- adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine. DNA sequencing is basically figuring out what order the bases go in. At the Genome Analysis Centre, machines are often in charge of that.

“The art of explaining science to non-scientists is all about the metaphors,”

Think of these as letters of the alphabet. So we've got a page of information and we don't know what it says, but we want to find the order of those bases, ACGT. So this instrument does that,” Dave Baker said.

Within the Genome Analysis Centre lies one of the most powerful computers in the world. It’s got to be a force to be reckoned with. The researchers here handle hundreds of samples and millions of sequences every day. In the humane genome alone, there are three billion letters of DNA. And those are just humans. Don’t let me get started on wheat.

“Five times bigger than human. So wheat is a lot more complicated than working with human genomes.” Sarah Hyde said.

That’s Sarah Ayling, a researcher at the Genome Analysis Centre. Again, metaphors explain science -- in this case, the science of why wheat is so freaking complicated. And there is no better metaphor than mom and dad.

“Two plants came together and both contributed a genome. So while you get get half a copy from your mom and dad that makes kind of one person. It's like getting everything from your mom and everything from your dad and keeping it all.” Sarah Ayling said.

And if scientists can uncrack wheat’s complicated genomic structure, they can understand how to change it and help wheat resist disease. And Sarah and her team aren’t the only scientists trying to unravel the genetic makeup of wheat. The Genome Analysis Centre is a key participant in the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC) project, which generates and analyzes sequences from the bread wheat genome.

“Work needs to continue to improve that to get to the quality the human references. That's the kind of dream. There's a big global contortion working on that as well. But we did a lot of work for the first version here.” Sarah Hyde said.

Each day, those at the Genomics Analysis Institute get a new gene delivery. Each week, they arrange the alphabet, trying to get DNA strands to spell out messages they can understand. Or, at least, that’s one way of putting it. Put another way: Wheat is complicated. And that’s the problem.

Written by Holly J. Mcdede

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