Barley and Wheat Discovery Offers a Pathway to End Famine

Barley and Wheat Discovery Offers a Pathway to End Famine

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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. 

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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.”

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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.

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“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.

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