• Home
  • The weed that helps to feed the world

The weed that helps to feed the world

January 30, 2018
Chaunmai 42 at Zhongjiang. Photo: CIMMYT/Garry Rosewarne.

Chuanmai 104, a more recent, improved version of Chuanmai 42. Photo: CIMMYT/Garry Rosewarne.

Scientists say that the detailed sequencing of the genome of goat grass, which is considered a weed in some countries, could help to improve food security for the world’s expanding population.

Wheat is the world’s most widely grown crop cereal thanks to its adaptability to a number of climates. It is a staple food for more than a third of the world’s human population and accounts for 20 percent of all calories consumed globally. However, it has one of the largest and most complex genomes compared of crop plants, making sequencing difficult.

The common bread wheat species we are familiar with today arose when emmer wheat cross-bred with goat grass (Aegilops tauschii) around 8,000 years ago. Genes from goat grass contributed to bread wheat’s tolerance of cold and diseases, which is why both species are able to grow in so many parts of the world.

Understanding the complex genetic features of goat grass could help develop new wheat varieties that adapt to stressors like climate extremes and disease, authors say in a comment article for Nature Plants published today.

25 years ago, a team of researchers at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) developed a number of wheat x grass crosses that have since been used in breeding programs worldwide.

Sichuan Academy of Agricultural Science and CIMMYT developed many other crosses from goat grass.

The first of these wheat types to reach farms, Chuanmai 42, was released in the Sichuan Basin of China in 2003 and allowed wheat farmers there to boost yields by as much as 20 percent – the most significant increase in the region for decades.

“The contributions of goat grass make wheat more resilient,” said He, a wheat scientist at CIMMYT. “This confirms the great potential of this type of wheat to help low- and middle-income countries meet the rising demand for wheat-based products, as their populations grow and urbanize.”

Murdoch University’s Professor Rudi Appels, who is one of the co-authors on the Nature article, said the genome sequence, published in November 2017, highlights the distinctive features of goat grass, known as “jumping genes”.

The further study of these complicated elements, which are so-called because they can change their position in the genome, could help bread wheat further adapt to stressors like climate extremes and disease, said Professor Appels and his co-authors.

“As our population rapidly expands, and our climate grows more extreme, it is very important we are able to produce wheat varieties which can survive and thrive,” he said.

“The availability of the genome sequence for goat grass provides further opportunity to explore and understand the properties which can help wheat improvement. Two new genes that can be utilized for resistance to the wheat stem rust pathogen have already been discovered as a result of the genome being sequenced.”

Read the full article: The goat grass genome’s role in wheat improvement. 2018. Rasheed, A., Ogbonnaya, F.C., Lagudah, E., Appels, R., He, Z. In: Nature Plants.


Genevieve Renard
Head of Communications
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
+52 5558042004


Jo Manning
Media and Communications Advisor
Murdoch University
9360 2474 / 0408 201309



CIMMYT – The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center – is the global leader in publicly-funded maize and wheat research and related farming systems. Headquartered near Mexico City, CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, thus improving global food security and reducing poverty. CIMMYT is a member of the CGIAR System and leads the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize and Wheat and the Excellence in Breeding Platform. The Center receives support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies www.cimmyt.org.