U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists were part of an international team that completed a partial sequencing of the extremely complex wheat genome, which has descended from three ancient grass species.
The lead study authors are based in Britain and were funded by the country's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
"The raw data of the wheat genome is like having tens of billions of scrabble letters; you know which letters are present, and their quantities, but they need to be assembled on the board in the right sequence before you can spell out their order into genes," team member Neil Hall of the University of Liverpool said.
"We've identified about 96,000 genes and placed them in an approximate order. This has made a strong foundation for both further refinement of the genome and for identifying useful genetic variation in genes that scientists and breeders can use for crop improvement."
Grown on more land area than any other commercial crop, wheat is the world's most important staple food and its improvement has vast implications for global food security, a USDA release said Wednesday.
"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," said Catherine Woteki, USDA's Chief Scientist and Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics.