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Genetics and geography of wild cereal domestication in the near east

Key Points

  • Molecular markers, which provide genome-wide measures of genetic similarity, are pinpointing the geographical origin of Western agriculture.

  • Cereal domestication occurred in the Fertile Crescent — a region of the Near East in which wild progenitors of modern cereals still occur.

  • New geographical and genetic evidence point to a specific 'core area' in the Fertile Crescent, near the sources of the Tigris and the Euphrates, as the cradle of agriculture.

  • The transition from wild to domesticated forms mainly entails changes in three key traits: seed size, ear rachis stiffness and the free-threshing habit.

  • The genes that govern these traits have similar morphological effects in different species and are syntenic.

  • Reconstructing the genetics of cereal domestication, which occurred 10,000 years ago, is a challenging undertaking, but is facilitated by the genetic analysis of polyploid species.

  • The traits that distinguish wild from domesticated cereals are preserved in archaeological remains, which supplement the genetic evidence in providing landmarks for the timing and location of the origin of agriculture.


About 12,000 years ago, humans began the transition from hunter-gathering to a sedentary, agriculture-based society. From its origins in the Near East, farming expanded throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, together with various domesticated plants and animals. Where, how and why agriculture originated is still debated. But newer findings, on the basis of genome-wide measures of genetic similarity, have traced the origins of some domesticated cereals to wild populations of naturally occurring grasses that persist in the Near East. A better understanding of the genetic differences between wild grasses and domesticated crops adds important facets to the continuing debate on the origin of Western agriculture and the societies to which it gave rise.

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Figure 1: Map of the Near East.
Figure 2: Phylogenetic trees showing a single origin for domesticated varieties of einkorn and barley.
Figure 3: Genetic similarities of cultivated tetraploid wheats (hulled emmer and hard wheat) to wild emmer populations from different regions.
Figure 4: Models for the evolution of polyploid wheats under cultivation and domestication.
Figure 5: Geography of early domestication and of later events during crop differentiation.


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This article is dedicated to A. Bianchi, plant geneticist and teacher. We thank M. Pasemann, S. Effgen, J. Schütze and an anonymous referee for their help.

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Correspondence to Francesco Salamini.

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A population of a species that thrives in natural habitats. In the simplest example, the single species that dominates a field of grass.


The backbone of the ear (inflorescence), which bears lateral spikelets.


The leaf-like structure that protects the seed in cereals. They can be tenacious (hard and not releasing the seeds, indehiscent) or soft (freely release seeds; naked seeds).


The study of the geographical distribution of plant species.


A mapping method in which genomic DNA from different strains is amplified by PCR using arbitrary primers. DNA fragments that are amplified in one strain are used as polymorphic markers.


Chromosomes that share a common ancestor; although these might differ to some extent, they have a collinear molecular organization. Homoeologues can occur in different species, but can also coexist in the nucleus of polyploid species.


An archaeological period starting 5,500 cal BP in the Fertile Crescent. This corresponds to a later period in Europe.


(NFT). Forms of cereal that have tenacious glumes.


A primary habitat is an ecological or geographical zone in which a given species is naturally endemic. The same species might subsequently colonize other areas (secondary habitats) as a consequence of human activities.


A population living in wild habitats that is derived from crosses between wild and domesticated genotypes.


The part of the ear in grasses that contains 1–4 seeds and their surrounding glumes (leaf-like structures).


A rachis in which the ear disrupts at maturity into individual spikelets, each bearing a fragment of rachis.


One that does not release spikelets at maturity. The ear can therefore be threshed to release seeds.


The presence of extra copies, or no copies, of some chromosomes.


In polyploids, a new chromosome pair from a related species can be introduced, while eliminating the resident homoeologous pair. This generates a substitution line. When repeated for all chromosomes, the process generates a set of substitution lines.


Collinearity in the order of genes (or of other DNA sequences) in a chromosomal region of two species. Homoeologous chromosomes are largely syntenic.


A non-flowering seed plant (for example, pine).


The presence of more than two chromosomes synapsed in a unit during prophase I of meiosis; this is characteristic of many autopolyploids.


A hexaploid wheat that is still sporadically cultivated in Europe, the grains of which are enclosed (hulled) in glumes.


A bristle-like appendage that is seen on the glumes of many grasses.


A physiological condition of a viable seed that prevents germination, even in the presence of otherwise favourable germination conditions (for example, heat or moisture).


A locally adapted strain of a species that is selected and adapted by farmers.


A sample of plant material that is collected at a specific location and maintained in a seed bank.


An experimentally determined profile of genetic markers that is present on a single chromosome of any given individual.


The term used by breeders to refer to the collection of varieties and breeding lines.


A process of recurrent backcrossing that leads to the incorporation of genes from one species into the gene pool of another.


Increase in allele frequency to the point at which all individuals in a population are homozygous.

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Salamini, F., Özkan, H., Brandolini, A. et al. Genetics and geography of wild cereal domestication in the near east. Nat Rev Genet 3, 429–441 (2002).

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