New future for an old crop: barley enters the genomic age

October 18, 2012

Filed under: News — Karen Chance @ 10:11 am

New future for an old crop: barley enters the genomic age

Barley research at the University of Adelaide’s Waite Campus.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Higher yields, improved pest and disease resistance and enhanced nutritional value are among the potential benefits of an international research effort that has resulted in the mapping of the barley genome.

The work – conducted by the International Barley Sequencing Consortium (IBSC), which includes Australian researchers based at the University of Adelaide’s Waite Campus – is described in a paper published today in the prestigious journal Nature.

Barley is the world’s fourth most important cereal crop, and the second most important crop in Australian agriculture. Australia produces around seven million tonnes of barley a year, 65% of which is exported at a value of $1.3 billion annually. Australia also accounts for one third of the world’s malting barley trade.

The Australian research team was led by scientists at the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG) and the University of Adelaide, who worked with colleagues at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls.

“This new analysis of all the genes in the barley genome is a major step forward for agricultural science and industry,” says Australian research leader and a senior author of the Nature paper, Professor Peter Langridge, Chief Executive Officer of the ACPFG.

“This will greatly accelerate the work in Australia and elsewhere to improve the quality of barley, enhance its disease and pest resistance and, most importantly, support efforts to improve the tolerance of barley to environmental stresses such as heat and drought.”

First cultivated more than 15,000 years ago, barley belongs to the same family as wheat and rye. Together, they provide about 30% of all calories consumed worldwide.

“Because barley is very closely related to wheat, these results from barley will have a major impact on wheat research,” Professor Langridge says. “Wheat is Australia’s most important crop, and improvements in wheat production globally will be a key to ensuring global food security.”

The barley genome is almost twice the size of that of humans. Determining the sequence of its DNA has presented a major challenge for the research team. This is mainly because its genome contains a large proportion of closely related sequences, which are difficult to piece together.

The team’s Nature paper provides a detailed overview of the functional portions of the barley genome, revealing the order and structure of most of its 32,000 genes. It also includes a detailed analysis of where and when genes are switched on in different tissues and at different stages of development.

The team has described regions of the genome carrying genes that are important to providing resistance to diseases, offering scientists the best possible understanding of the crop’s immune system.

The Australian component of this research has been funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) and the South Australian Government.