US Department of Agriculture scientists as part of an international team have completed a “shotgun sequencing” of the wheat genome for the first time, according to a paper published Nov. 28 in the journal Nature.

Wheat was the main remaining field crop that had not been genetically sequenced by scientists, and the breakthrough spurred ideas that yields may increase and more nutritious wheat will be bred as a result.

“By unlocking the genetic secrets of wheat, this study and others like it give us the molecular tools necessary to improve wheat traits and allow our farmers to produce yields sufficient to feed growing populations in the United States and overseas,” says Catherine Woteki, USDA’s chief scientist and Undersecretary for research, education and economics. “Genetics provides us with important methods that not only increase yields but also address the ever-changing threats agriculture faces from natural pests, crop diseases and changing climates.”

Wheat is grown on more land than any other commercial crop and is the world’s most important staple food.

“Its improvement has vast implications for global food security,” the USDA says.

“The study represents the most detailed examination to date of the DNA that makes up the wheat genome, a crop domesticated thousands of years ago,” the USDA added. “The wheat genome is five times the size of the human genome, giving it a complexity that makes it difficult to study. The researchers used the whole genome shotgun sequencing approach, which essentially breaks up the genome into smaller, more workable segments for analysis and then pieces them together.”

The USDA has conducted similar genomic studies on other crops such as tomatoes, corn and soybeans.