Kellye Eversole has been at the helm of the IWGSC since its inception in 2005 and has been instrumental in all developments and successes of the consortium, relentlessly advocating and pursuing the vison and ultimate goal of the consortium to develop genomic tools to advance wheat research and breeding.
In this interview, she looks back at the challenges, the opportunities and the satisfactions of the wheat genome sequencing adventure, and provides some insights on what needs to be done next to capitalize on the IWGSC achievements.
You were a key person in the maize, bovine, and porcine, maize genome initiatives some decades ago. What made you move from initiatives like these to focus on such a difficult species like wheat?
My involvement with the maize genome effort concluded in 2002. The bovine and porcine genome sequencing projects were well underway when I was approached in 2004 by the Kansas Wheat Growers and Kansas State University officials to see if I would be willing to mount a public-private consortium for wheat similar to what we had done with the Animal Genome Alliance.
Wheat has always had a special place in my heart. I grew up on a wheat farm and, during the 10 years I worked in the US Senate, I was often referred to as a champion for wheat growers. Thus, I jumped at the chance to start working again with wheat and to lead the effort to develop a high quality reference genome sequence for wheat. Little did I know how very difficult and complex is the wheat genome, quite different from the much simpler maize, bovine, and porcine genomes.
The energy you brought to the IWGSC held, and continues to hold, the effort together. Could you share a couple of key drivers for you and some individuals or other initiatives who provided a role model for you or who influenced you.
It is not difficult to be passionate about a project in which I believed would deliver a game changing paradigm for wheat breeders, wheat growers, and the industry at large. As this was not my first international consortium or my first genome sequencing effort, I took the many lessons I learned along the way and embedded them into the structure of the IWGSC.
First and foremost, industry interest and leadership were and remain critical to the overall success of the consortium. Second, it has been essential for us to have academic leaders who were more interested in developing the resource than in their personal funding opportunities. Third, I looked to the genome or genome sequence enabled initiatives of the pharmaceutical industry and the biomedical world for guidance on structure, industry partnerships, methods to build public-private alliances, and overall strategies. Fourth, I never lost sight of the vision and the ultimate goal that growers to benefit from the project, we had to make sure we deliver what is needed to advance wheat research and breeding and not what is the easiest to be done.
Finally, there are two individuals who supported me throughout and helped me rise above politics and resolve the challenges that were ever present before and after we published the reference sequence: Rudi Appels and Catherine Feuillet.
What were the major hurdles you had to face during all these years coordinating the IWGSC?
Of course, the major challenge for wheat was that no one had tackled such a large, complex genome before. We were entering uncharted territory and were told repeatedly that it would be impossible to sequence bread wheat which is five times bigger that the human genome. There were some who believed we should sequence one of the diploid genomes from wild relatives instead of bread wheat and others who believed that we should simply do a “quick and dirty” low coverage sequence of bread wheat and forget about a high quality reference sequence.
Keeping our eye on the vision and never forgetting that we wanted a sequence that would empower breeding programs enabled us to get around these challenges. Engaging public and private breeders right at the onset to decide what species needs to be sequenced was very fundamental and there was no doubt for them that it had to be bread wheat as it is the species that is cultivated on more than 90% of the agricultural surfaces.
With this vision in mind, we developed a scientific strategy that would take advantage of technology advancements in cytogenetic stocks and the ability to do flow sorting of chromosomes, physical mapping, and sequencing. Every resource we developed would be useful regardless of the future advances in sequencing technologies and almost all of these resources are still being used in different ways today. Funding was always a challenge that we only overcame by slowly putting the different pieces together with funding from different countries and from industry.
Competing claims for having finished sequencing the wheat genome created significant challenges for you and I wonder if you could provide some of the back-stories.
Oh, my, yes, we encountered some difficulties when individuals claimed to have sequenced the bread wheat genome when in fact they had only released a skim sequence that was lacking key information like the position of the genes on the chromosomes…. When some of these claims were made, we had funding agencies that threatened to withdraw support for projects that were critical to the high quality genome sequence. Fortunately, in most cases we were able to save these projects by explaining the differences between the type of products that were created and claimed as reference sequences and actual reference sequences.
While the wheat community is very collaborative in essence, some individuals felt they could shortcut the international effort and went so far as to convince some funding agencies not to support our projects. Others wanted to be “the one” to sequence the wheat genome, an admirable goal but not achievable for the type of sequence that the majority of the wheat scientific community and the wheat industry needed and wanted. It was frustrating to be distracted by these various efforts and we decided in many instances not to react to the PR that was happening around wheat sequencing and let the users show what is valuable to them.
It is clear that the IWGSC reference sequence is the sequence that is being used by the entire wheat community with a huge impact. Beyond the generation of the sequence itself, the IWGSC has been a rallying organization for people to develop projects together, for training and supporting new generations of wheat scientists, and accelerate wheat research in a way that individuals alone could not accomplish and we are very proud of that. The feedback we received from the wheat community and the wheat industry as well as other crop communities in the way we have managed the IWGSC in these rocky time has been really rewarding.
We were always told to “use the rice genome as a model”. Do you think this is still accurate and what advice would you have for individuals starting a genome sequencing project now?
While the high quality reference genome sequence paved the way for other crop genomes, I have always believed that it is never good to use another genome as a model for the one on which you want to work and efforts to do so simply distract one from the goal and delay important work. A lot of the genome sequencing efforts are supporting the identification of important traits that have evolved often quite differently in each crop and can only be addressed with access to the specific crop genome sequence itself. Sure, we can look at how other genomes have been sequenced and avoid pitfalls that befell other projects; however, if one wants a sequence of a species, then the focus should be on developing the resources for that species. With the rapid evolution of the genome sequencing technologies that were boosted by the human genome projects, there are no reasons to continue to rely only on model genome sequences to improve crops.
If you had to start the IWGSC again, what would you change compared to what was done?
When we launched, we didn’t have strict rules for participation in the scientific coordinating committee. This was a mistake as we had individuals who participated in our coordinating committee meetings and used the information to develop their own projects in competition with ours and, in some cases, we had members of the committee who did not support our efforts, our vision, or our ethics. Since this committee was charged with developing our strategies, this was a problem in the early years of the IWGSC before we implemented a change in membership.
I also would have developed the requirements for authorship on IWGSC papers in the beginning so that it was clear that authorship would only be granted to those who scientifically contributed to the effort described in the paper. Getting this done before there are any products will allow one to stay focused on the paper rather than the politics of authorship.
Climate change is now a major challenge for wheat breeding. What can be done to convince stakeholders to invest more on wheat adaptation?
The studies that are being published around the world indicate major impacts on wheat production due to climate changes. Enabling rapid development of wheat varieties or hybrids becomes critically important in these scenarios as the climate is changing faster than varieties are made available to growers.
I believe that wheat stakeholders and funding agencies will provide financial support for efforts to increase the adaptability of wheat to differing climates. Understanding the linkages between wheat genotype and phenotype as well as the environment in which the crop will be grown is essential. Given the different environmental stressors, the multiple biological and geophysical interactions with the plant in its environment, we need to make the case that looking at the entire system of wheat producing climates will be beneficial to meeting the future demands of production in changing climates.
What kinds of scientists do you prefer to work with?
Good ones, of course! I really like to work with scientists who are committed to the overall good of the community, who behave ethically, who offer speaking opportunities to students, and who respect and honor the right of those who develop data to publish first.
What has been the best moment in your professional life so far?
This is really a hard one as I have had such a great, diverse professional life that gave me many opportunities for success. If I limit it to the time since I began my consulting business in 1991, I would have to provide four in chronological order: (1) gaining congressional support and significant funding for the US plant genome initiative in 1997; (2) completing the first draft of the bovine genome sequence and the bovine SNP chip in 2009; (3) the completion of the high quality porcine genome sequence in 2012; and (4) the reference sequence of the bread wheat genome in 2018. The latter one has a special place and probably would be listed as the best moment of all as we achieved the “impossible”.
About Kellye Eversole
Kellye Eversole is a pioneer in agricultural genomics, biotechnology, and the development of pre-competitive, public-private agricultural research. Since 1994, she has led international consortia and projects to obtain reference genome sequences for agriculturally important crop, livestock, and poultry species. She has been leading the IWGSC since 2005 and the International Alliance for Phytobiomes Research since 2016.
In addition to her work in genomics and convergent systems, Kellye advises public and private entities on regulations related to agricultural biotechnology/genetic engineering, microbial products, and plant protection products. She is a faculty affiliate in the Ag Biology Department at Colorado State University and has published widely in top tier journals including multiple articles in Science and Nature. For her work in plant and microbial genomics, she was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2012.
Passionate about innovation for societal benefits, increased diversity in STEM, and giving back to society through volunteering, Kellye is on the advisory board for Zaidi-STEM, a nonprofit organization supporting STEM innovation and mentoring for girls in Sub-Saharan Africa, is a member of the Board of Directors for Women in the Enterprise of Science and Technology (WEST), and founded the Women in Genomics networking group in 1998. She is also a member of the Arlington Diversity Task Group and an active participant in anti-racist activities in Massachusetts.