An international consortium of scientists has published a high-resolution draft of the barley genome – a breakthrough that will help to produce new and better barley varieties vital for the beer and whisky industries.
The UK team behind the research was led by Professor Robbie Waugh of Scotland’s James Hutton Institute who worked with researchers at The Genome Analysis Centre, Norwich.
Barley is the second most important crop in UK agriculture and malting barley underpins brewing and pub industries worth some 20 billion pounds to the UK economy. The research is a critical step towards barley varieties able to cope with the demands of climate change. It should also help in the fight against cereal crop diseases that cause millions of pounds of losses annually.
Barley is the world’s fourth most important cereal crop both in terms of area of cultivation and in quantity of grain produced. In addition to whisky and beer, barley is also a major component of the animal feed for meat and dairy industries. Barley straw is a source of nutrition for ruminants and is used for animal bedding and frost protection in the winter.
The barley genome is almost twice the size of that of humans and determining the sequence of its DNA has presented a major challenge. This is largely because its genome contains a large proportion of closely related sequences that are difficult to piece together into a true linear order.
By developing and applying a series of innovative strategies that allowed them to circumvent these difficulties, the International Barley Genome Sequencing Consortium (IBSC) - including UK researchers in Dundee and Norwich and funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Scottish Government - has managed to construct a high resolution draft DNA sequence assembly that contains the majority of barley genes in linear order.
Their publication provides a detailed overview of the functional portions of the barley genome, revealing the order and structure of most of its 32,000 genes and a detailed analysis of where and when genes are switched on in different tissues and at different stages of development.
They described the location of dynamic regions of the genome that, for example, contain genes conferring resistance to diseases. This will provide a far better understanding of the crop’s immune system. The achievement also highlights with unprecedented detail the differences between several different barley cultivars.
“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,” said Professor Waugh.
“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,” he added.
The research was published in the journal Nature.