Barley breeders respond to industry in ferment

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Key points

  • The world’s thirst for malting and feed barley continues to grow
  • Technical innovation remains the key to consistent production quality and yields
  • In Australia, commercial barley breeding has reached a highly sophisticated capability

Changes to the structure of Australia’s barley breeding programs reflect big shifts in the global brewing sector, which is looking to advances in breeding technology to keep its competitive edge.

A measure of the maturity of barley breeding in Australia can be seen in the decision by the University of Adelaide to restructure its barley breeding program into a business unit.

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Jason Eglinton from the University of Adelaide inspects new lines of malting barley for sprouting.

Dr Jason Eglinton, who heads the program, told the Australian Barley Technical Symposium that the university had committed $10 million to the program, with additional revenue available from a mix of royalties, recurrent funding and corporate investment.

This follows the end to GRDC funding for barley breeding. Dr Eglinton outlined how the revamped program would feature several new initiatives, including:

  • greater student engagement with the barley research groups;
  • support for best-practice teaching and training;
  • supporting varieties through the value chain with partners such as Japanese brewer Sapporo;
  • integration of pragmatic breeding activities with the application of new technology; and
  • new research initiatives such as the Lost Genes and Traits Initiative, which is a partnership with the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA.

The University of Adelaide breeding model reflects the new era of commercial breeding partnerships that are tailoring varieties to locations and products.

For example, in the high-rainfall zone (HRZ) in western Victoria, the grower-owned company GrainSearch is developing varieties that specifically meet local growing needs.

Philip Jobling, GrainSearch business manager, said the company started in 2002 in response to a major shift in production systems in the HRZ from livestock to cropping and the realisation that no barley variety suited local growing conditions. 

The strategy adopted by GrainSearch is to import and field trial European varieties. This is done in partnership with PGG Wrightson to test French material. Previously there was also a partnership with Syngenta to test material from the UK.

In total in 2013, GrainSearch tested 350 lines at three field sites. The material was evaluated for a range of grower traits for the HRZ and not just yield.

An example of the value of this approach is the commercial success achieved with WestminsterPBR logo, a variety tested through the partnership with PGG Wrightson. It took seven years to develop through to malt accreditation and 2014, marks its third year in commercial production.

Another barley breeder, InterGrain in partnership with Syngenta, is also changing tack. The InterGrain program has moved from being a largely Western Australian-based program to a national one. In particular, InterGrain has developed a significant partnership with the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Queensland and the GRDC to breed for the northern grain region.

InterGrain barley breeder David Moody says the collaboration with Syngenta also provides for international trialling of InterGrain germplasm and for early-stage access to Syngenta’s elite European germplasm pool, which he says dominates European spring barley plantings.

“As part of Syngenta’s integration of seed and chemical businesses, InterGrain is also able to access the latest agronomic solutions for those problems that breeding has been unable to address,” he says.

“Commercial drivers have also seen the phasing out of the use of double-haploid technology by InterGrain and its replacement with multiple-generations-per-year methods and increased adoption of molecular technologies for its barley breeding program.”

InterGrain barley breeder Dr Reg Lance told the symposium these moves are part of a broader integration of biotechnology for barley improvement aimed at reducing the time needed to breed new varieties.

“InterGrain is accelerating its efforts to improve resistance to leaf rust, scald and net blotch using formal and informal relationships with state agricultural departments in New South Wales, Victoria, WA and Queensland along with the South Australian Research and Development Institute, the University of Sydney Plant Breeding Institute and the University of Queensland.”

International breeding

Beer brewers with global reach – such as Carlsberg, which produces about 500 brands in 140 markets, with sales ranking it fourth in the world – have retained and strengthened in-house research for breeding their own barley varieties.

Kim Jørgensen, managing director of the Carlsberg malting plant in Denmark, told the Australian Barley Technical Symposium that research at Carlsberg was restructured in the late-1990s to understand barley traits in relation to factors that affect beer taste. Among the traits targeted is the deterioration of flavour in beer stored longer than a month. This is attributed to an enzyme that converts lipids into trans-2-nonenal (T2N). In partnership with Heineken, the enzyme was inactivated (both conventionally and using GM technology) producing ‘null-LOX’ barley lines.

“In a consumer taste test with 10-month-old stored beer, we found a small preference for null-LOX,” Mr Jørgensen said. “So beer brewed from null-LOX varieties stays fresher for longer and has an improved taste, but it also surprised us by having better foam stability.”

With a proud history in R&D and the refocused program delivering important innovation, Carlsberg has rolled out additional projects dealing with producing “fresher beers”.

This includes producing malt that lacks dimethyl sulfide (DMS), a sulfur compound with the aroma of cooked or creamed corn that people can perceive at extremely low flavour thresholds (10 to 150 parts per billion) and that can, therefore, have a significant impact on the flavour of finished beer. Additional interests include sustainability, understanding the hallmarks of climate-tolerant barley, raw material security and supporting local economies.

Australian advances

New methods of testing for barley grain quality have been developed at the University of Adelaide by Dr Daniel Cozzolino. He has devised methods that use advances in enzyme biochemistry and instrumentation, such as near-infrared (NIR) technology, to increase the commercial value of Australian barley grain.

The technology has been applied to look beyond the starch and protein composition of grain and to assess the impact on end uses of their three-dimensional physical structure within the grain.

This makes it possible to understand the impact of variation in those structures on the grain’s functional properties during malting.

In March 2013, Dr Cozzolino received the Tomas Hirschfeld Award, the most prestigious in the field of NIR spectroscopy, for his role in developing rapid analytical applications for a wide a range of agricultural products.

“The value of the malting premium to Australian growers is, on average, $192 million a year, highlighting that Australian growers should avoid competing on price alone,” he said.

“Australians need to maintain international market share by growing varieties with quality that is demonstrably better than international alternatives.

“In this context, understanding the biochemical and biophysical characteristics of barley is of primary importance in order to develop tools that can assist breeders to efficiently manipulate genetic variation that confers improved malt quality.”

Snapshots: Genetics and genomics

Marker development

The most powerful way yet devised to fingerprint DNA and generate DNA markers – next-generation sequencing – has been applied to analyse Australia’s major premium malting varieties, including BaudinA. Millions of sites that can distinguish genetic variation between varieties have been identified and 50,000 new DNA markers have been mapped in the barley genome. – Xiao-Qi Zhang, Murdoch University 

Rust-resistance genes

Advances in barley genomics are making it possible to identify new rust-resistance genes using mapped quantitative-trait-loci data. The new system uses a software tool that integrates genomic data from different laboratories and mapping populations and produces a consensus map. The ‘phenotype genome integration system’ was developed with support from the GRDC. 
Dr Qisen Zhang, Department of Agriculture and Food, WA

Speed breeding

A new method developed for bread wheat to rapidly move multiple traits into commercial cultivars has been successfully applied to Scarlett, a barley variety popular with maltsters and brewers. The variety lacked adequate disease resistance so crosses were set up to introduce resistance to four foliar diseases: spot and net form of net blotch, spot blotch and leaf rust. It then took just two years to take 94 Scarlett-derived lines to disease field trials in 2013, with yield and quality trials scheduled for 2014. Generation times were on average reduced to 10 weeks, with 5000 plants screened per cycle. The same method is expected to work for abiotic stresses such as the stay-green, drought-tolerance trait and for other crop species. – Dr Lee Hickey, University of Queensland 

Silage quality

It has proved possible to select for early maturing barley lines that combine high grain yield, good straw strength and high in vitro fibre digestibility despite these traits being strongly influenced by growing environments. Additionally, three quantitative trait loci were identified that point to important chromosome regions that affect silage quality.– Joseph Nyachiro, Field Crop Development Centre, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, Lacombe, Canada

Genetic variation of malting enzymes

Extensive genetic variation has been identified for a key brewing enzyme, along with variants that enhance malt traits. The enzyme, alpha-amylase, is responsible for the first step in starch hydrolysis, which releases fermentable sugars. Functional differences between variants present in cultivated varieties were identified, with the level of enzyme activity and the enzyme’s heat stability correlated with fermentability and diastatic power. – Dr Thi Thu Suong Cu, University of Adelaide

Snapshots: Diseases of barley

Spot form net blotch

A source of resistance to all Australian forms of spot form net blotch disease (Pyrenophora teres f. maculata) has been identified in the two-row barley lines, Esperance Orge 289 and Yangsimai 3. The material has also proven resistant in Canada, Finland and South Africa. The two lines are being genetically characterised and are due to be crossed into adapted barley varieties for use in Australian breeding programs. – Dr Mark McLean, Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries, Horsham, Victoria

Net form net blotch

Sources of resistance have been identified to 110 isolates of net form net blotch (Pyrenophora teres f. teres) collected between 2007 and 2013 in Australia. The resistant material – CIho 5791 and VlaminghPBR logo – were part of a set of barley differentials comprised of 20 local and 11 international cultivars used to type the fungal isolates.– Ryan Fowler, University of Queensland and Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Necrotic toxins

Cell-free extracts from net form net blotch (Pyrenophora teres f. teres) isolates are able to induce similar symptoms to those in barley infected with live fungus, including necrotic symptoms in susceptible cultivars. The extracts make it possible to better understand the disease process and to more readily screen for resistant germplasm. This approach of using toxin-containing extracts has already been tried successfully in wheat by Professor Richard Oliver at Curtin University, in Western Australia, and that technology can now be applied to barley. – Ismail Ismail and Associate Professor Amanda Able, School of Agriculture, Food and Wine, University of Adelaide

National program

Lessons learnt from past state-based public breeding programs on disease resistance and from the repeated breakdown of resistance in Australian barley varieties are being integrated and used to inform R&D within the new GRDC National Barley Foliar Pathogen Variety Improvement Program. – Greg Platz, Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Barley scald genetic diversity

Analysis of gene flows and genetic diversity confirms that Scandinavia is the likely origin of the barley scald pathogen (Rhynchosporium commune) about 4000 years ago. The fungus now has a global distribution with the potential to evolve rapidly in response to resistant cultivars and fungicides, creating local populations with a high index of genetic diversity. Recent gene flow was also identified between South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.– Bruce McDonald, Plant Pathology Group, Institute of Integrative Biology, Switzerland

Barley scald resistance

Durable forms of resistance to barley scald are proving elusive. More durable forms of resistance are thought possible by combining six minor resistance genes into well-adapted germplasm. Resistance sources include Schooner, which, despite having been grown for over 30 years, maintains a low level of resistance to barley scald in field trials.– Hugh Wallwork, South Australian Research and Development Institute

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The new barley superpower: Argentina

During the past five years the area sown to barley in Argentina has grown at a pace of 250,000 hectares per year, reaching 1.5 million hectares in the 2012 season. 
This growth has come at the cost of bread wheat, which historically dominated winter cereals grown as the predecessor crop to soybean (the most important oilseed crop with 19 million harvested hectares).

Daniel Miralles, from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, told the Australian Barley Technical Symposium, held in September 2013 in Melbourne, that the average national yield for barley for the past three seasons was about 3.6 tonnes/ha – 12 per cent higher than wheat.

“One reason for barley outperforming wheat is the new varieties developed by local breeders during the mid-1980s. Another is the inclusion of mainly German varieties, particularly Scarlett, in the 1990s,” he said.

Scarlett increased yields by 25 per cent and now covers more than 95 per cent of the total barley area. The variety can yield up to 12t/ha.

Similarly, 25 per cent yield increases are now proving possible with new European varieties. In 2008, the National Barley Net was established, modelled on the GRDC’s National Variety Trials, to evaluate new varieties in more than 15 different environments for yield and malting quality. Agronomic modelling is also being used to optimise yields, including early sowing where climatic conditions resemble Australia’s.


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GRDC Project Code UA00126, IGP0003, IGP00004, AEG00003

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