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

Barley research at the University of Adelaide's Waite Campus.
Photo by Randy Larcombe.

Barley research at the University of Adelaide's Waite Campus.
Photo by Randy Larcombe.

Full Image (188.69K)

Barley.
Photo by Randy Larcombe.

Barley.
Photo by Randy Larcombe.

Full Image (134.96K)

Malting barley underpins the beer sector, which is worth more than $5 billion to the Australian economy.
Photo by iStock.

Malting barley underpins the beer sector, which is worth more than $5 billion to the Australian economy.
Photo by iStock.

Full Image (132.88K)

Professor Peter Langridge, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG).

Professor Peter Langridge, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG).
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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.

The full paper can be found on Nature's website.


Background


The University of Adelaide Waite Campus

The University of Adelaide's Waite Campus is the leading agricultural research, education and commercialisation cluster in the Southern Hemisphere, bringing together 1200 researchers from the University and co-located partners. This unique model of university, government and industry partners concentrates expertise in a range of agricultural science areas. The University's School of Agriculture, Food and Wine and the Waite Research Institute are both based at the Waite Campus.


International Barley Sequencing Consortium

The IBSC was founded in 2006 and includes scientists from Germany, Japan, Finland, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and China. www.barleygenome.org

The genome sequence and related resources are freely accessible on the following websites:
http://seacow.helmholtz-muenchen.de/cgi-bin/gb2/gbrowse/Barley_PhysMap
ftp://ftpmips.helmholtz-muenchen.de/plants/barley/public_data/
http://webblast.ipk-gatersleben.de/barley/


Barley - importance to Australia

Barley is worth around $1.3 billion annually to Australia's exports. We produce almost seven million tonnes of barley each year on an area of around four million hectares. Australia accounts for around 32% of the international trade in malting barley, although we're only about 5% of the world's annual barley production.

Malting barley (37% of the total barley produced) underpins the beer sector, which is worth more than $5 billion to the Australian economy. Lower quality grain and by-products of the malting process are a major component of the animal feed that underpins meat and dairy production. Over the past 50 years, barley grain yields have more than doubled - most of this improvement can be attributed to genetics.


Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics

The ACPFG was established in 2003 by the South Australian Government and the Australian Federal Government through the ARC and the GRDC. ACPFG improves cereal crops' tolerance to environmental stresses such as drought, heat, salinity and nutrient toxicities - major causes of yield and quality loss throughout the world and significant problems for cereal growers. www.acpfg.com.au


ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls

The ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls is a collaboration between the Universities of Adelaide, Melbourne and Queensland in partnership with the South Australian Government and seven international institutions. Established in 2011, its research is focused on the biosynthesis and re-modelling of plant cell wall polysaccharides, which play important roles in human health and renewable biofuels. The Director of the Centre is Professor Geoff Fincher, who is also an author on the Nature paper.

Both ACPFG and the Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls are based at the University of Adelaide's Waite Campus.

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