Gene technologists in the US are the first to isolate and copy - or clone - vrn2 from wheat. The gene vrn2 plays a role in 'vernalising' wheat plants, the crucial gene network whereby the developing seedling must undergo cold temperatures before it can resume developing into stems, leaves and flowers.
Plant geneticist Ann Blechl at the US government's laboratory the ARS Western Regional ResearchCenter successfully inserted genes into wheat plants. Researchers at the University of California also involved in the study report that those plants were essential for proving vrn2's role.
"Wheat's recalcitrance to accept new genes had greatlyslowed the progress of research designed to give this grain crop new genes to boost tolerance to drought or to improve its nutritional value," report the scientists.
Building on the research in vrn2 Blechl is currently investigating ways to genetically improve wheat toreduce stickiness of wheat dough, an occurrence that can cause problems in bread production.
At UC-Davis, the vrn2 research is led by Jorge Dubcovsky, a professor of agronomy and range science, whose team had earlier isolated, cloned and established the identity of vrn1, a wheat gene that also has a role in vernalisation.
The UK bread and morning goods market is worth over £3 billion and is one of the largest sectors in the food industry. According to the UK Bakers Federation total volume is approximately 2.9 million tonnes, the equivalent of over 9 million large (800g.) loaves every day.
The larger baking companies, such as Rank Hovis, produce 82 per cent of bread sold in the UK. Instore bakeries (ISBs) within supermarkets produce about 16 per cent and high street retail bakers produce the rest.
Between 1950 and 1980 bread consumption declined steadily as a result of changing eating habits and the introduction into the UK of a large variety of new foods from around the world.
During the 1980s bread sales stabilised and in the early 1990s started to increase. This was due to increased consumer awareness that all bread is an essential part of a healthy diet as well as the greatly increased variety of bread - with hundreds of varieties available, consumers today have more choice than ever before. Despite a short downward blip in the mid-90s bread sales are once again stable, said the federation, although the impact of the popular US low carbohydrate on sales of carbohydrate food products in the US is starting to be felt in the UK. The total market for bread and bakery snacks consumed at home was worth £2.95bn in 2002, according to Keynote, an increase of 2 per cent on the 2001 figure. Substantial rises in the price of raw materials wheat, with global stocks at 30 year low - and flour in 2003 and 2004 have seen on-shelf prices rise further.
A significant development for the plant bread market in the UK has been the phenomenal growth in the sandwich market over the past 25 years. It is now estimated to be worth £3 billion in retail sales.
In the US, the $16 billion bread market has shown growth of 18 per cent from 1998 to 2003.
Growth in the market is currently being driven by taste trends and fresh formats of traditional products, as well as diet and health concerns. According to Mintel, key growth categories are those that offer the most flavour variations, like the wide range of speciality/artisan bread, which increased sales by 18 per cent from 2001 to 2003.
Whole grain/wheat varieties also proved to be a key growth area, a knock on effect of the consumer drive towards healthy eating. Mintel maintains that favourites of the children - white bread, tortillas, rolls, biscuits, bagels, and pitta (all forms of white bread) have shown slower growth, and will likely continue to do so.
The market analysts predict that bread sales will continue a pattern of slow, steady growth as manufacturers find profitable niches to balance out the large, very mature segments of the market.
Full findings of the vrn2 study are published in the March 12, 2004 issue of Science.