USDA scientist at Iowa State part of team that brings barley into the genomics age

Roger Wise, USDA-ARS collaborating professor in plant pathology and microbiology

AMES, Iowa -- A USDA Agricultural Research Service scientist at Iowa State University is part of an international research effort that has resulted in an integrated physical, genetic and functional sequence assembly of the barley genome. The research was published recently in the prestigious journal Nature.

Higher yields, improved pest and disease resistance and enhanced nutritional value are among potential benefits of the research, said Roger Wise, a USDA collaborator and professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology at ISU.

The new resource, produced by the International Barley Sequencing Consortium, will facilitate the development of new and improved barley varieties. These varieties will help cope with the demands of climate change and help in the fight against cereal crop diseases, which cause millions in losses every year. The consortium includes scientists from 22 organizations in 9 countries.

What does this scientific advance mean for a state like Iowa?

"Research in our laboratory at Iowa State is focused on analyzing important agronomic genes in cereal crops," said Wise, a founding member of the consortium. "We study basic genetic mechanisms of disease resistance in plants. Because these mechanisms are common among many plants, the barley genome sequence is one more tool to help us improve disease resistance -- not only barley but for crops important to the Midwest like corn and soybeans."

Wise said the barley genome also adds to the list of monocot plants that have been sequenced, a list that includes corn and rice.

Access to the new catalogue of barley 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.

Barley is the world's fourth most important cereal crop both in area of cultivation and in quantity of grain produced. First cultivated in the Fertile Crescent more than 15,000 years ago, barley belongs to the Triticeae family, which includes wheat and rye, and that together provides around 30 percent of the calories consumed worldwide.

The barley genome is twice the size of the human or corn genomes. Determining the sequence of its DNA presented a major challenge, mainly because its genome contains a large proportion of closely related sequences, which are difficult to piece together. By developing and applying a series of innovative strategies that allowed them to circumvent these difficulties, the consortium scientists succeeded in positioning the DNA sequences of the majority of barley genes into a linear order along each individual chromosome. This is an important milestone towards eventually unravelling a full barley genome sequence.

The work of the International Barley Sequencing Consortium published in Nature 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. It describes the location of dynamic regions of the genome that carry genes conferring resistance to diseases. This will provide a better understanding of the crop's immune system.

The scientists' achievements highlight with unprecedented detail the differences between a range of different barley cultivars and provides a springboard for the development of innovative approaches for the use of abundant genetic resources kept in genebanks around the globe. The work will accelerate research in barley and its close relative, wheat. Armed with this information, plant breeders and scientists will be much better placed to deal with the challenge of effectively addressing food security under in a rapidly changing environment.


Editor's Note:

The Nature paper can be found here here.

A USDA news release on the research can be found here.

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