By Magpie Group
We’re all familiar with words like genetics, DNA and genes; in fact, they’ve become part of our everyday vocabulary. But, at its core, what we so casually toss around is an awe-inspiring and delicate biological process that happens every millisecond. And without it, all cell-based life on earth would cease to exist.
The field of genomics has not only improved the crops we grow and the animals we raise for food, it has also allowed us to grow more food on the same amount of land. Genomics is transforming our world and the science of agriculture in remarkable ways.
DNA, genes, genomes: Let’s break down the terminology
DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the foundation of life.
It consists of four different types of biological building blocks called nucleotides that are represented by the letters A, C, G and T. These building blocks are paired together in long chains that look like a twisted ladder, called a double helix.
Specific arrangements of nucleotides are called genes. Genes are the instructions for building proteins that grow and keep an organism alive. In living beings, these proteins each have a specific purpose, like making and repairing muscles and bones, delivering nerve impulses or the carrying the basic instructions for how cells should function.
Every unique feature of any living organism is a direct result of the arrangement of its DNA. For example, human eyes can range from dark brown to bright blue, while the tone of your voice can be deep and baritone or high or soft. DNA determines a plant’s leaf shape and stem height, as well as what a dog’s coat will look like, from short and scruffy to long and soft. DNA is also how traits are passed from one generation to the next. “Heredity” is how we describe genes that are passed from parent to offspring.
A genome refers to the complete set of genes in a living organism. Any organism (from bacteria to dinosaurs to trees and humans) has a unique genome that holds all the information it needs to develop, grow and function.
The study of genomes: Cracking the code of life
Genomics is the study of genomes and how individual genes interact with each other and the environment. It is a very exciting field that only became possible in the last couple of decades thanks to advances in technology.
Genomics is a revolution in the making! Here are examples.
DNA sequencing involves reading the exact sequence (or order) of nucleotides in a genome. Using innovative and complex math, scientists can sequence millions of small fragments of DNA at the same time. They’ve also been able to sequence the entire genome of individual organisms!
In November of 2020, researchers from around the world led by scientists at the University of Saskatchewan published a study in which the genomes of 15 wheat varieties were mapped. It was a landmark study because it provided the most thorough analysis of the wheat genome sequence ever reported. Scientists around the globe will be able to use the wheat genome resource to more precisely control breeding and improve plant traits.
This innovation is already leading to plant varieties that have higher yields to produce more food, be more resistant to pests and disease, and stand up to environmental stress like drought or extreme temperatures. Ultimately, this scientific understanding will have a direct impact on food security for people around the globe.
This refers to altering the order of the DNA molecules that make up a gene. This is a revolutionary tool that can introduce precise edits to a genome very quickly. Gene- edited plants are indistinguishable from traditionally bred plants.
Why is this beneficial? Traditional plant breeding involves crossing plants with desired traits, then waiting to see if the traits show up in future generations, which can take decades. Gene editing has sped up this process. Not only does it make new varieties available more quickly, it also separates out genes with undesirable effects that are linked to the genes you want to show in up in new varieties.
Gene editing is a relatively inexpensive technique that has brought new and more resilient crop varieties to countries around the world.
Genomics in action: How it’s changing the way we farm
So what does this mean to farmers and Canadian consumers?
Scientists focusing on genomics have:
- Developed crop varieties that yield more food, faster and are adapted to the short growing seasons in Canada. Genetic mapping has been used to increase the yield of specialty crops like mustard and break through decades-long yield limitations. A new mustard variety released in 2020 has 20% higher yields than older varieties without farmers having to apply more fertilizer.3
- Discovered markers that help ranchers choose better genetics for their animals more efficiently than traditional breeding methods. This improves animal health, helps animals grow more efficiently and many other benefits.
- Created crop varieties that withstand the attack of various pests and diseases. This reduces the need for farmers to use pesticides. It also means they’re able to grow more food. For example, research in western Canada resulted in specialty crops like camelina that are being bred with resistance to downy mildew, a devastating disease that can wipe out crops and that requires fungicides to control.
- Found genetic variations in livestock diseases that could affect human health. This speeds up disease tracking and control by veterinarians and reduces the amount of medication farmers need to use to manage disease.
Like so many other advancements in technology, genomics is allowing us to produce higher-quality food and more of it. It’s just one of the ways that farmers and scientists are able to keep pace with feeding an ever-growing world population.
More information on technological advancements in food production:
- What is Gene Editing?
- What is Genetic Engineering?
- New Crops Help us Solve Problems
- Growing Better Crops: Carrying on a Tradition of Thousands of Years
- How has the science of producing food changed?