Scientists Map The Barley Genome To Produce A Better Beer

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Written by “April Flowers.” From

Imagine a hot summer day, sitting in the cheap seats at your favorite baseball park. You have your hot dog, your giant foam finger, and a beer. Does life get any better than this? Can scientists build a better beer?

An international consortium of scientists believes so, and they have been mapping the genome of barley to help produce new and better varieties, vital for the beer and whiskey industries. Their results have been published in the journal, Nature.

Professor Robbie Waugh of Scotland’s James Hutton Institute worked with researchers at The Genome Analysis Centre, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the University of Minnesota and others to create a high-resolution draft of the barley genome.

The world’s fourth most important cereal crop in terms of area of cultivation and quantity produced, barley is the second most important crop overall in the UK. Malting barley underpins brewing and pub industries in that country alone for some 20 billion pounds per year. Mapping the barley genome is a critical step towards barley varieties able to cope with the demands of climate change. In addition, disease resistant strains can be developed to combat the cereal crop diseases that cause millions of pounds of loss annually.

This giant step forward will give researchers the tools to produce higher yields, improve pest and disease resistance, and enhance nutritional value of barley. Not to mention improve beer and whiskey!

“This important step toward full barley genome sequencing offers enormous potential for global food security. Using the tools of genetics and genomics, we are keeping farmers profitable and our food supply safe and abundant,” said Catherine Woteki, USDA’s Chief Scientist and Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics.

Barley is also a major component of animal feed for meat and dairy industries, and barley straw is a source of nutrition for ruminants, used for animal bedding and frost protection.

This mapping will “accelerate breeding improvements to help barley adapt to climate change,” says Gary Muehlbauer, head of the Department of Plant Biology, a joint department of the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences and the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. “That means making barley more resistant to drought and able to use water and nitrogen more efficiently.”

The biggest challenge the team faced was that the barley genome is almost twice the size of that of humans. Determining the sequence of its DNA has presented some unique obstacles, mainly because its genome contains a large proportion of closely related sequences that are difficult to piece together into a true linear order.

The team, consisting of scientists from 22 organizations around the globe and called the International Barley Genome Sequencing Consortium (IBSC), developed and applied some innovative strategies that allowed them to overcome the challenges. They managed to construct the high-resolution draft DNA sequence that contains the lion’s share of the barley genes in linear order.

The paper provides a detailed overview of the functional portions of the genome, revealing structure and order for most of its 32,000 genes. The team also created a detailed analysis of where and when genes are switched on in different tissues and stages of development. The locations of the dynamic regions of the genome are described, providing a much better understanding of the crop’s immune system.

Understanding the immune system response to disease is critical. For example, before the 1990′s Minnesota had millions of acres of barley. Today that has dwindled to about 120,000 acres because of an epidemic of Fusarium head blight.

Professor Waugh says, “Access to the assembled catalogue of gene sequences will streamline efforts to improve barley production through breeding for varieties better able to withstand pests and disease and deal with adverse environmental conditions such as drought and heat stress.”

“It will accelerate research in barley, and its close relative, wheat. Armed with this information breeders and scientists will be much better placed to deal with the challenge of effectively addressing the food security agenda under the constraints of a rapidly changing environment.”

Successfully mapping out the barley genome, along with other grass family crops such as wheat and rye, will allow scientists and breeders to address the challenges of feeding the world’s growing population in an increasingly challenging environment  effectively.

The study was funded in part by the USDA, as were previous genomic sequencing studies into tomatoes and corn, studies on cattle breeding and dairy cow productivity.

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