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Deciphering the secret of the sugar beet

This news release is available in German.

An international team of researchers from Bielefeld University, Germany, the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona, Spain, the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics (MPIMG), Department of Vertebrate Genomics (H. Lehrach) in Berlin and further partners from academia and the private sector, have been able to sequence and analyse for the first time the sweet genes of beetroot. The results of the study, that have been published on 18th December in Nature, shed also light on how the genome has been shaped by artificial selection.

What do foodstuff like muffins, bread or tomato sauce have in common? They all contain different amounts of white refined sugar. But, what perhaps may result amazing is that this sugar is probably sourced from a plant very similar to spinach or chard, but much sweeter: the sugar beet. In fact, this plant accounts for nearly 30% of the world's annual sugar production, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization for the United Nations (FAO). Not in vain for the last 200 years, has it been a crop plant in cultivation all around the world because of its powerful sweetener property.

Sugar beet is the first representative of a group of flowering plants called Caryophyllales, comprising 11,500 species, which has its genome sequenced. This group encompasses other plants of economic importance, like spinach or quinoa, as well as plants with an interesting biology, for instance carnivorous plants or desert plants. 27,421 protein-coding genes were discovered within the genome of the beet, more than are encoded within the human genome. "Sugar beet has a lower number of genes encoding transcription factors than any flowering plant with already known genome", adds Bernd Weisshaar, a principle investigator from Bielefeld University who was involved in the study. The researchers speculate that beets may harbor so far unknown genes involved in transcriptional control, and gene interaction networks may have evolved differently in sugar beet compared to other species.

Many sequencing projects nowadays targeted at the analysis of novel genomes also address the description of genetic variation within the species of interest. Commonly, "this is achieved by generating sequencing reads obtained from high-throughput sequencing technologies, followed by alignment of these reads against the reference genome to identify differences", explains Heinz Himmelbauer, a principle investigator of this study. The current work, nevertheless, went one step further and generated genome assemblies from four additional sugar beet lines. This allowed the researchers to obtain a much better picture of intraspecific variation in sugar beet than would have been possible otherwise. In summary, 7 million variants were discovered throughout the genome. However, variation was not uniformly distributed: The authors found regions of high, but also of very low variation, reflecting both the small population size from which the crop was established, as well as the human selection, which has shaped the plants' genomes.

Thanks to the sugar beet genome sequence made by the researchers and the associated resources generated, future studies on the molecular dissection of natural and artificial selection, gene regulation and gene-environment interaction, as well as biotechnological approaches to customize the crop to different uses in the production of sugar and other natural products, are expected to be held. "Sugar beet will be an important cornerstone of future genomic studies involving plants, due to its taxonomic position", the authors claim.


Contact: Dr. Bernd Weisshaar
University of Bielefeld

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