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U of M scientist contributes to mapping of barley genome

October 17, 2012

An international team of researchers, including a University of Minnesota scientist, has developed an integrated physical, genetic and functional sequence assembly of the barley genome, one of the world’s most important and genetically complex cereal crops. Results are published in today’s issue of Nature.

The advance will give researchers the tools to produce higher yields, improve pest and disease resistance, and enhance the nutritional value of barley.

Importantly, it also 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’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.”

Muehlbauer is vice chair of the International Barley Sequencing Consortium (IBSC), which carried out the sequencing. The IBSC (www.barleygenome.org) was founded in 2006 and includes scientists from Germany, Japan, Finland, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and China. The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the National Science Foundation provided funding for the US part of the effort.

The Nature publication provides a detailed overview of the functional portions of the barley genome, 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. It also describes the location of dynamic regions of the genome that carry genes conferring resistance to devastating diseases. This will greatly improve the understanding of the crop’s immune system.

In the 1990s, Minnesota had a million acres of barley, but that has dwindled to about 120,000 because an epidemic of Fusarium head blight, which has decimated the crop in this state. Most barley is now grown in North Dakota, Montana and Idaho.

“This resource will help make it possible to breed barley that is resistant to various pathogens, that exhibits improved grain quality, and increased drought tolerance and nitrogen use efficiency,” says Muehlbauer, who holds an endowed chair in molecular genetics applied to crop improvement in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics.
 
Sequencing of the genome will accelerate research in barley and its close relative wheat. It will also allow breeders and scientists to effectively address the challenge of feeding the world’s growing population as climate change increasingly challenges growers with extreme weather events, according to the USDA.

The Nature paper can be found at z.umn.edu/barley. For more information on the IBSC, please visit: www.barleygenome.org.

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