BackgroundThe cereal crops domesticated from grasses provide a large percentage of the calories consumed by humans. Domestication and breeding in individual cereals has historically occurred in isolation, although this is rapidly changing with comparative genomics of the sequenced or soon-to-be sequenced genomes of rice, sorghum, maize and Brachypodium. Genetic information transferred through genomic comparisons is helping our understanding of genetically less tractable crops such as the hexaploid wheats and polyploid sugarcane, as well as the approx. 10 000 species of wild grasses. In turn, phylogenetic analysis helps put our knowledge of the morphology of cereal crops into an evolutionary context. Grass ArchitectureDomestication often involves a change in the pattern and timing of branching, which affects both vegetative and inflorescence architecture, and ultimately yield. Cereal grasses exhibit two main forms of vegetative architecture: the pooid and erhartoid cereals such as wheat and rice have multiple basal tillers, while panicoid cereals such as maize, sorghum and the millets have few tillers or even only a single main stem. These differences are reflected in the differences between the wild species of pooid and some erhartoid grasses, which emphasize basal branching over axillary branching, and the panicoid grasses, where axillary branching is more frequently found. A combination of phylogenetic and genomic analysis is beginning to reveal the similarities and differences between different cereal crops, and relate these to the diversity of wild grasses to which they are related. Recent work on genes controlling branching emphasizes that developmental genetics needs to be viewed in both an evolutionary and ecological framework, if it is to be useful in understanding how morphology evolves. Increasingly, exploring the phylogenetic context of the crop grasses will suggest new ways to identify and create combinations of morphological traits that will best suit our future needs.
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