U takes lead for better barley

The University got almost $2 million to lead a USDA effort to improve barley crops.

Angela Gray

University researchers could improve your next glass of cold, frothy beer.

The University received a major U.S. Department of Agriculture grant as the lead institution in a 30-scientist consortium that will explore methods to produce higher-yielding, higher-quality and disease-resistant barley by relating genetic information to physical traits in existing barley breeding lines.

The University will receive just less than $2 million of the total $5 million being awarded to 19 institutions by the USDA, according to an announcement by Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

This consortium will work together to develop a detailed genetic “road map” of barley to identify the genes that control yield, food and malt quality and disease resistance.

Nancy Ehlke, professor of agronomy and plant genetics, said the grant will go wholly toward research.

“The project will implement new genomics technology,” said Gary Muehlbauer, professor of agronomy and plant genetics.

“We want to make barley breeding more efficient and effective,” he said.

This research will use marker-assisted selection technology, Muehlbauer said, which allows breeders to select more precisely the best trait combinations for specific varieties.

Kevin Smith, professor in the department of agronomy and plant genetics, said this is one large coordinated project with an overall aim at using modern tools of genomics to develop new barley varieties.

For example, a plant scientist might mark a combination of genes known to increase disease resistance. Breeders wanting the disease resistance trait use marker information to identify lines containing that specific combination of genes.

Smith said researchers in Minnesota can improve barley varieties for malting and brewing beer.

He said the project involves a large collaboration of science, genetics, genomics, plant breeders and scientists involved in food science and plant pathology.

“The project is trying to create a large barley research community database that different scientists can use,” Smith said.

Results of the research will be available to scientists, growers and the food industry through the project’s public Web site.

Muehlbauer pointed out that benefits of the barley research will extend to the general public.

“The research will help create an alternative and healthy source of food and energy by developing a more sustainable supply of barley,” he said.

A portion of the USDA money will help educate graduate students and postdoctoral research associates in plant breeding and genetics.

He said he hopes this money will encourage more people to get involved with plant breeding and genetics research.

“The University has been involved in barley research for over 100 years,” he said. “It is the leading institute for barley research.”

Smith said the University was given the grant because of several individuals who

took the lead to organize research and the community together.

“The actual project is the result of a lot of people’s work,” Smith said. “The University is well deserving of the grant because of the strong history of barley research.”