Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2012 12:00 PM
John O'Connell/Capital Press
Idaho Barley Commission Administrator Kelly Olson tours an experimental barley field in Idaho Falls during late summer 2012. Olson says a project that mapped the barley genome is a significant research milestone but a lot of work still needs to be done before scientists can truly understand how the genes function together.
Project provides detailed analysis of crop
By SEAN ELLIS
An international group of scientists has released the most advanced sequencing of the barley genome to date, a development that researchers say could lead to big benefits for the barley industry.
"This is huge," says Roger Wise, a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist who worked with other researchers around the world on the project.
Wise says the development will speed up work to improve barley yields and quality as well as pest and disease resistance and drought tolerance.
Wise, who specializes in disease resistance in cereal crops, says the genome sequence will provide researchers with a much greater understanding of the crop's immune system and could speed up the pace of disease-resistance research tenfold or more.
The project mapped most of the barley genome's 32,000 genes and provides a detailed analysis of where and when the genes are switched on in different tissues and at different stages of development.
Researchers can now look at the regulatory regions of barley genes and, if they can understand them, they can begin to better understand how to control pest and disease issues, Wise says.
Before, researchers had a lot of gene sequences to look at but they didn't understand the regulatory regions that shut genes off and on, Wise says.
"It's like having a light bulb without a switch," he said.
The sequencing effort provides researchers the location of dynamic regions of the genome that carry genes that confer resistance to major diseases such as fusarium head blight, powdery mildew and rusts.
While there is some sequencing left to do, Wise said, the achievement provides researchers "almost everything we need to know. The final bit is ongoing ... but the rest is gravy."
There is still a lot of important research left to be done before researchers can begin to truly understand how all the genes function together, but the sequencing was a significant research milestone, Idaho Barley Commission Administrator Kelly Olson said.
"That kind of knowledge will allow scientists ... to improve quality, disease and pest resistance and tolerance to environmental stresses such as drought," she said. "It's an exciting development for barley."
With 5.3 billion letters of genetic code, the barley genome is twice the size of the human genome and was a challenge to sequence due to its complexity and the large proportion of repetitive regions.
But by using a series of innovative strategies that allowed them to circumvent these difficulties, researchers were able to create a high-resolution assembly that places the majority of barley genes in order.
"Any time you map out a crop's genome, that's a huge step forward," said north Idaho grain grower Robert Blair, who is a member of the joint U.S. Wheat Associates and National Association of Wheat Growers biotech committee. "If we know more about the crops we grow, we can use technology to be more efficient."