AN OBSESSION WITH WHEAT PAYS OFF

When the news that scientists had finally cracked the bread wheat genome sequence broke in the journal, Science, (last month), it was a high point for many scientists and breeders across the globe including co-author Dr. Catherine Feuillet,  now CSO at Inari. She shares her thoughts about this momentous achievement and how it aligns with Inari’s mission to solve the challenge of feeding the world without starving the planet.

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They said it couldn’t be done. That’s why more than 200 scientists, myself included, spent  13 years creating a high-quality reference genome sequence for bread wheat that can be used to accelerate research and breeding.

August 2018 issue of Science

When we started in 2005, only a handful of enthusiasts in the room, many thought this it too complicated, too expensive and too long to achieve.  This was all the more reason to persevere, plus so much was at stake. Wheat feeds 30% of the world population, and that is what matters! Now, we have a “dictionary” to understand the genome sequence of wheat, an encyclopedic listing of every element within wheat and an invaluable tool to understand how they interact to enable wheat to grow and produce the grain that is so indispensable to  humanity.

I’ve been obsessed with helping to grow what feeds people  for most of my life. I did not grow on a farm but as a teenager, I was devastated by  images of starving kids and displaced people in Africa. I was privileged enough to live in a country where everything grows well. What I wanted to do was study something that could  help others around the world grow what they need to feed their families.

Thus, I  dedicated myself to changing the world for the better as a scientist, and earned  my Ph.D. in molecular biology. OK, why wheat? Two important, conflicting facts:

  • More than 2 billion people worldwide rely on wheat as a main food source; and yet,
  • it has not received the attention of some other plants like rice and corn due to the size and complexity of wheat’s genetic makeup.

As a result, technological advances haven’t kept up with the needs and the priority of wheat. We’ve made amazing discoveries about the human genome following its sequencing, but the bread wheat genome is 5 times bigger than the human genome and far more complex to decipher! For that reason, it has – up until now – been difficult to produce a high-quality reference sequence.

Plant breeders vastly increased wheat yields during the Green Revolution of the 1960s, in part thanks to Norman Borlaug (a real American hero).  Since then, efforts to improve the crop through traditional breeding or genetic technology have been painstakingly slow.

In 2004, I joined the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA),  one of Europe’s top agricultural research institutes and the world’s number two center for agricultural sciences, as Research Director to develop wheat genomics projects. While there, I founded and became co-chair of the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium, one of the best examples of a group of purpose-driven scientists from public and private research organizations collaborating across borders to help resolve some of the toughest problems we share as humans.

In 2008, my team at INRA published the first mapping of the largest wheat chromosome.  In 2014, we achieved the first reference sequence of that chromosome (by itself the size of the soybean genome) and published together with the IWGSC a draft of the entire wheat genome. 

Thirteen years after we dreamt it , we made it happen — we were able to crack the wheat genome code, and produce a high quality reference sequence that will now accelerate all ongoing projects in wheat research and breeding.

I could not be prouder that this sequence is being used to serve wheat breeders and farmers around the world. It is completely aligned with the core of Inari’s vision: to completely transform plant breeding by pushing the envelope, by rethinking the way breeding has been done, and by combining biology and data sciences with incredible technologies.

It is this kind of fundamental information that enables a company like ours to be more efficient and faster  in our mission to design customized seeds for a healthier wheat crop production. Inari’s unique blend of technologies will be applicable to many other crops in the future, including soybean and corn.  Imagine that we can help to produce new seed varieties 3 times faster and for 10% of the current costs!

If it hadn’t been for  incredible projects like the wheat genome sequencing , we’d all likely remain in the “dark ages” for years to come – unable to fulfill our mission to provide revolutionize seeds and agriculture for all.

That’s my wheat story. This has been an incredible adventure scientifically and humanely. I have learned and shared so much, and the project and the people I worked with will forever remain in my heart. It was impossible…and now, it’s not.  C’était impossible … jusqu’à maintenant. That’s what I love about science and what we are doing now at Inari!

A note from Inari CEO Ponsi Trivisvavet: “We were thrilled when we were able to add Catherine to the Inari leadership team, not only for what she’s accomplished in her career to date, but for the contributions we know she’ll be making throughout Inari’s development. She’s already proven she can do what others say can’t be done; at Inari, our mission is to make the impossible happen.”