Due to the rising population, many people worry about food shortages. However, experts believe wheat and barley can help feed the world.

An international team of scientists found a new genetic variation in wheat and barley, yielding larger harvests. Scientists from the University of Adelaide’s Waite Research Institute led the study, collaborating with researchers worldwide. Researchers from the 10+ Wheat Genomes Project and the International Barley Pan Genome Sequencing Consortium unlocked the new variation.

Led by Professor Curtis Pozniak from Canada and Professor Nils Stein from Germany, the team sequenced a suite of genomes of both crops. Also, Professor Chengdao Li of Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, helped greatly with the Australian barley sequencing. They published these findings on November 25, 2020, in the journal Nature. 

Scientists say this will lead to a new generation of barley and wheat productions. These two crops play an essential role in keeping up with the food demands of an ever-increasing population. Both are easy-care species that grow even in challenging climates, so increasing production could help to end the global famine.

Wheat and barley vital to feeding the world

“Wheat and barley are staple food crops around the world but their production needs to increase dramatically to meet future food demands.”

So says the University of Adelaide’s Associate Professor Ken Chalmers, who collaborated with School of Agriculture, Food & Wine colleague Professor Emeritus Peter Langridge. “It is estimated that wheat production alone must increase by more than 50% over current levels by 2050 to feed the growing global population.”

pop meme

The recent research marks an important step in uncovering the entire gene set, or pan genomes, of the two crops. When scientists thoroughly understand the cereals’ genetic variation, they can accurately project future global production demands.

“Advances in genomics have accelerated breeding and the improvement of yield and quality in crops including rice and maize, but similar efforts in wheat and barley have been more challenging,” says Professor Langridge.

Why wheat and barley genome sequencing is more difficult

“This is largely due to the size and complexity of their genomes, our limited knowledge of the key genes controlling yield, and the lack of genome assembly data for multiple lines of interest to breeders. Modern wheat and barley cultivars carry a wide range of gene variants and diverse genomic structures that are associated with important traits, such as increased yield, drought tolerance, and disease resistance.”

“This variation cannot be captured with a single genome sequence. Only by sequencing multiple and diverse genomes can we begin to understand the full extent of genetic variation, the pan genome.”

So far, the international team has sequenced multiple kinds of wheat and barley varieties from all over the globe. The Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) supported the Adelaide component.

“The information generated through these collaborative projects has revealed the dynamics of the genome structure and previously hidden genetic variation of these important crops and shown how breeders have achieved major improvements in productivity. This work will support the delivery of the next generations of modern varieties,” Associate Professor Chalmers says.

The genome sequencing included two Australian varieties of wheat, AGT-Mace (PBR) and Longreach-Lancer (PBR). As both the northern and southern areas were represented, researchers can gauge how the variations will adapt to both environments. The University of Adelaide also sequenced three barley varieties that had a high-yield. They also had the capability of tolerating heat, frost, salinity, drought, and novel disease.

“These genome assemblies will drive functional gene discovery and equip researchers and breeders with the tools required to bring the next generation of modern wheat and barley cultivars that will help meet future food demands,” says Associate Professor Ken Chalmers.

Production of wheat and barley around the world

Grains are precious for animal and human consumption since they can be stored for long periods. They can also be easily transported over long distances and are widely used to process flours, oil, and gas. For thousands of years, humans have harvested various grains, and they remain a staple in our diets today. Corn still leads the way in grain production, with over 1.11 billion metric tons harvested in 2018-2019.

However, wheat comes in second at 765 million metric tons, with most coming from Europe, China, India, and Russia. It is the most vital grain worldwide based on acres utilized, and almost every U.S. state produces the crop. The top states involved in the production include North Dakota, Kansas, and Montana. Wheat finds its way into many different products such as soups, bread, cookies, multi-purpose flour, and pasta.

In 2019-2020, barley production worldwide amounted to 156.41 million metric tons. We commonly see barley in bread, cereals, soups, and beer and animal feed. As one of the first grains cultivated by early humans, it can thrive in various climates. In 2017, the top three barley-producing states in the U.S. were Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota.

Its origins trace back to ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. However, barley is one of the most adaptable grains, growing in climates ranging from sub-Arctic to subtropical. In modern times, most barley production takes place in Europe, Russia, and Ukraine.

Interesting facts about wheat and barley

  • Wheat originated in the Tigris and Euphrates river valley, near modern-day Iraq.
  • Around 3/4ths of all U.S. grain products come from wheat flour.
  • Kansas yields enough wheat each year to bake 36 billion loaves of bread. This is enough to feed everyone in the world for about 2 weeks. An acre of wheat from Kansas also produces enough bread to distribute to around 9,000 people for one day.
  • Barley was first domesticated around 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, a Middle East region.
  • Barley contains 8 essential amino acids, many B vitamins, and minerals such as magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and zinc.

barley could end famine
Final thoughts on the discovery of new genetic variations of wheat and barley

In the next century, wheat and barley production will need to increase dramatically to feed the world. Scientists have captured more genome sequences from both crops, which will help create the next generation of wheat and barley. Now that they have a better understanding of these grains, they can better estimate global demand in the future. So we still see hope in ending global famine by using the latest science.