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Plant Genomes Staple Foods With Reasons for Concern

How researchers from Helmholtz Munich are making wheat, oats, barley, and co. fit for the future.

How researchers from Helmholtz Munich are making wheat, oats, barley, and co. fit for the future.

Humans might have remained hunter-gatherers if our ancestors hadn't discovered, domesticated, and cultivated wheat, oats, barley, and other cereals. Around 10,000 years ago, the cultivation of cereals and the practice of animal husbandry led to the establishment of settled human communities. Even today, cereal cultivation remains crucial for feeding the world's population. However, after 10,000 years, these essential crops are now in survival mode due to the threats posed by climate change, pests, and diseases, which endanger global food security.

To ensure that grains continue to provide a robust foundation for human nutrition, Helmholtz Munich scientists from the research group "Plant Genome and Systems Biology" have focused their research on cereals. Take wheat, for example: to feed the ever-growing global population, we must significantly increase wheat production while maintaining or reducing the cultivation areas, all under the challenging conditions posed by climate change. To make wheat future-proof, our researchers first analyzed its genome. By understanding which genes are responsible for specific traits, breeders can develop wheat varieties that are more adaptable, resistant, and higher-yielding.



The Wheat Genome: Complexity Beyond the Human Genome

Helmholtz Munich researchers led by Klaus F.X. Mayer, together with the 10+ Wheat Genomes Project, undertook a monumental scientific task: deciphering and sequencing the genomes of 15 wheat varieties from the world's most significant breeding programs. The challenge is immense: compared to the human genome, the wheat genome is incredibly complex. While wheat has fewer pairs of chromosomes than humans, each chromosome set is triplicated and substantially larger. Moreover, wheat genomes contain a much greater number of genes—up to 125,000—compared to the approximately 20,000 genes found in humans. These genes are organized within long, repetitive, and nested elements, adding further intricacy to the analysis.

Deciphering the wheat genome posed a unique puzzle that the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC) successfully completed in 2018, with significant contributions from Helmholtz Munich's Plant Genome and Systems Biology group. Led by Klaus Mayer, researchers focused on extracting and functionally analyzing all genes, as well as studying the composition and dynamics of the entire genome and its subgenomes. They particularly emphasized the so-called polyploidy, meaning the presence of multiple subgenomes and their distinct characteristics, along with the partial dominance of one or the other subgenome.

Both research and breeding benefit from this new knowledge about the interactions in the genome. Wheat varieties can now be identified and bred that are resistant to heat, drought and pests, produce high yields and, if possible, do not trigger allergies or promote metabolic diseases such as coeliac disease.

Trend Cereal Oats

The discovery of oats as a human food was serendipitous, emerging only about 3,000 years ago alongside wheat, emmer, and barley cultivated in Anatolia. Since then, oats have enjoyed a remarkable ascent due to their undeniable advantages: they are rich in healthy nutrients, more sustainable to cultivate, and require less fertilizer and pesticides compared to other cereal crops. Yet, it's the comprehensive decoding of its genome that has truly elevated oats to superstar status among cereals.

In 2022, researchers Nadia Kamal, Manuel Spannagl, and Klaus Mayer achieved a significant milestone: the complete sequencing of the oat genome. The oat genome is more than three times larger than that of humans and is composed of the genomes of three ancestors, making the genome architecture even more complex.

Learn more about this success

"Now that the oat's genetic code has been decoded, we can finally breed selectively because specific markers for certain oat traits can now be developed. We can now characterize and exploit the vast genetic diversity of oats." 

Prof. Manuel Spannagl

This research is being conducted within the framework of "pan-genome projects," where the genomes of various oat varieties are decoded and compared. It enables the identification of specific genes, such as those responsible for pest resistance, which can then be selectively crossbred and incorporated into cultivated oat varieties.

In the next phase of her research, Nadia Kamal will investigate the molecular basis of drought stress resistance in oats. She has secured funding from the European Research Council for her RESIST project, which aims to develop oat varieties that can thrive under drought conditions. Unfortunately, oats are highly susceptible to drought stress. Variations in precipitation, particularly during the growth phase, can significantly reduce yields.


"With climate change, drought periods are becoming more frequent and prolonged worldwide, including in Germany. This trend poses a major threat to oat cultivation and, consequently, to global food security. Our goal is to identify the genetic key factors for drought resistance in oats to breed more resilient varieties."

Prof. Nadia Kamal (former Helmholtz Munich)

Hops: A Source of Enjoyment and Medicinal Benefits Facing Adaptation Challenges

Another plant genome that the research group aims to analyze is that of hops—not a cereal, but a climbing plant from the hemp family. Given its proximity to the Hallertau hop-growing region, the scientists secured additional funding from the Bavarian Research Foundation for the PANHOP project. This project seeks to ensure the future of hops for both beer production and medicinal use. Like many other crops, hops are facing challenges from climate change, heat, and pests. Researchers at Helmholtz Munich are leveraging their expertise to help breeders develop stable, aromatic, and resistant hop varieties.

Facing the challenges of climate change with healthier and more resilient foods, Plant Genome and Systems Biology researchers at Helmholtz Munich are making significant contributions. Their work ensures that we can continue to thrive as settled, well-nourished, and healthy communities, just as we have for the past 10,000 years.

Learn more about this research group: Plant Genome and Systems Biology

What impact does climate change have on our most important cereal crops? 

Dr. Manuel Spannagl gives answers in this video. 

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Manuel Spannagl

Prof. Dr. Manuel Spannagl

Deputy Group Leader

Latest update: July 2024.