University of Dundee

Barley Genome Unravelled

19 Oct 2012

An international consortium of scientists has published a high resolution draft of the barley genome in the journal Nature. The research will help to produce new and better barley varieties that are 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 also became a member of the CLS Division of Plant Sciences this summer - working with researchers at The Genome Analysis Centre, Norwich.

Barley is the second most important crop in UK agriculture and malting barley (some 30% of the total) underpins the beer and whisky sector that is worth some £20 billion to the UK economy. The breakthrough 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 that underpins the meat and dairy industries. Barley straw is a source of nutrition for ruminants, used for animal bedding in the winter, and used for frost protection in horticulture.

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 describe 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.

Professor Waugh commented: “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.”

Commenting on the importance of this publication, Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive said: "This provides a timely and important new tool for unlocking the potential of better varieties of barley that are able to cope with environmental stresses or produce higher yields. It is an exceptionally valuable step for UK agriculture at a time when we have seen huge losses in the field due to wet weather and price-rise predictions for the consumer."

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

The genome sequence and related resources are freely accessible online.