Fingerprinting barley grains by Denys Slee

Harvester in field

Scientists are using DNA 'fingerprinting ' to identify long-lost animals from skeletal remains. Now that technology looks like being put to good effect in Australia's barley industry.

The aim is to develop a rapid-test DNA technique which will allow marketers and maltsters to identify varieties from small samples of grain - very small samples, even a few seeds.

The buyers will be able to tell Schooner from Arapiles from Tallon from whatever variety is delivered.

Market signals are saying this is important because different varieties react differently during the malting process, creating problems for the maltsters if they are mixed, even though the grain from two varieties might look similar and have similar protein levels.

"Reliable segregation of barley varieties is essential because of market preference for parcels of a single variety," says Mervyn Shepherd. "This is increasingly difficult using the conventional approaches of visual inspection or those based on protein."

Mr Shepherd is part of a Southern Cross University, Lismore team, which is confident that modified DNA-based methods will lead to accurate and rapid identification of barley varieties.

He said with conventional techniques it could take up to two weeks to tell one barley variety from another by its DNA make-up. "But we are developing assays to work on the seed itself, and in fact have one whereby we can extract DNA from the seed in 7-10 minutes."

He said the barley industry is calling for a full variety identification test that takes five minutes. "That might be a bit ambitious, but I think we can get it down to 20 minutes."

Subprogram 1.3.2 Contact: Mr Mervyn Shepherd 066 203 000