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Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) and an international consortium of researchers from 39 other institutions report the first whole-genome sequence of rye. This will guide future rye breeding and provide immediate benefit in managing the trade-offs of using rye as a genetic resource in wheat crop improvement. The work was published in Nature Genetics in March.

The genome sequence will be indispensable for use of untapped genetic diversity in breeding improved disease resistance, such as to ergot or leaf rust, and other sustainability traits in rye. “The rye genome will enable us to understand rye’s adaptive potential and efficiently use germplasm resources to meet future climatic challenges”, Alan Schulman, professor at Luke and a principle investigator in the study, says.

Rye as a crop is tolerant of northern conditions, disease, and difficult climate. Currently, rye is produced on 4.1 million ha worldwide. Over 80% of the world’s rye production is in North-Eastern Europe, an area that will see increasing challenges from climate change and disease over the coming decades. However, with its origins in the region of Turkey, rye was earlier cultivated in much of Western and Southern Europe on marginal soils and today is grown also in Spain, North America and Australia in fairly large quantities. All these regions are threatened by the effects of climate change. ”The genome sequence will both help find key genes, and allow breeders to efficiently access and apply genetic diversity to accelerate the production of new varieties suited to changing conditions.”

Rye genome sequence can help improve wheat yields

Rye is a source of many useful traits even for wheat breeding. Rye chromatin is commonly introgressed into bread wheat varieties to improve yield. “Rye is closely related to wheat, and crosses can be made, but the key is to move the genes without traits that would be undesirable in wheat. The genome sequence will greatly aid this process.”

Rye has been cultivated in Finland for over 2000 years, is mentioned in the Kalevala, and a key part of Finnish food culture today as well.  Rye is an exceptionally climate-resilient cereal crop, the key ingredient in rye bread, which is the national food of Finland (2016, voted “kansallisruoka”). “We want future generations also to have good rye bread, with its many health promoting properties, on their dinner tables”, Schulman says.