Researchers have drafted the genetic blueprint of bread wheat - an important step towards crafting improved versions of a crop that already produces nearly 700 million tons of food annually.

Experts behind the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (WGSC) published their findings in a series of four papers than can be found in the peer-reviewed journal Science.

"For the first time, [experts] have at their disposal a set of tools enabling them to rapidly locate specific genes on individual wheat chromosomes throughout the genome," Eduard Akhunov, a researcher and collaborator with the WGSC, said in a recent release.

"This resource is invaluable for identifying those genes that control complex traits, such as yield, grain quality, disease, pest resistance and abiotic stress tolerance," he added.  "They will be able to produce a new generation of wheat varieties with higher yields and improved sustainability to meet the demands of a growing world population in a changing environment."

Genetically modified (GM) agriculture has recently fallen under a lot of fire, as various groups have called into question the safety and necessity of GM crops. However, according to the prestigious MIT Technology Review, GM crops could potentially save the lives of millions of hungry people in the future. Even more importantly, while many GM crops are crafted by forcing new traits into a genome, crops simply tweaked to make maximum use of their natural genetic makeup are unlikely to pose a threat to other plant species or consumers.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) wholeheartedly supports GM modification products deiciated to making natural crop traits the best that they can be.

Sonny Ramaswamy, director of USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture - which funded the WGSC project, says that gene mapping like this will be necessary to support growing rapidly population numbers and longer lives across the globe.

"Wheat is a staple source of food for the majority of the world. As the global population continues to rapidly increase, we will need all the tools available to continue producing enough food for all people in light of a changing climate, diminishing land and water resources and changing diets and health expectations," she said. "This work will give a boost to researchers looking to identify ways to increase wheat yields."

The main study was published in Science for the July 18 issue. The three supporting articles remain temporarily unavailable as of July 17.