Genetic map points the way to advanced new barley

The design of a new barley variety that can better handle heat, frost, drought, pests and diseases has been brought considerably closer by an international genetics research collaboration.

Scientists from 10 countries have unravelled the genetic secrets of the barley plant, allowing them to understand which genes control barley’s ability to adapt to a wide range of climatic challenges and environmental stresses.

Western Barley Genetics Alliance director Professor Chengdao Li says the map of the barley genome will allow breeders and pre-breeders to develop molecular markers for the development of new barley varieties – something until now largely thwarted by the size of the barley genome.

“Barley has a large and complex genome, with 5.1 billion genetic letters assembled into seven chromosomes,” Professor Li says.

“This research was so large and complex that no single country had the capacity, so an international collaboration was essential.”

He says the genome map will give barley breeders and researchers confidence to manipulate relevant genes and reduce the time taken to develop new high-performance barley varieties tailored to Australian environments.

The genome mapping clears the first hurdle in variety development, which will now require extensive phenotyping (connecting genetics with environmental influences and performance).

Eighty per cent of Australia’s malting barley is exported, but fluctuating supply has led to increased competition from Europe and Canada. Professor Li says drought, heat, frost and disease mean Australia’s annual barley production has varied from four to 13 million tonnes over the past decade.

“Mapping the barley genome will provide an efficient tool to identify key genes controlling these traits and thus develop new barley varieties to tolerate these stresses.”

He says increased global competition has also recently come from the former Black Sea states and South American countries, which have lower production costs and/or freight advantages. “Australian barley not only needs to match the malting quality improvements of European and Canadian varieties, but we also have to improve productivity,” he says.

The Western Barley Genetics Alliance worked with scientists from Germany, the UK, the US, Finland, Denmark, China, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Switzerland.

GRDC Research Code DAW00233

More information:

Professor Chengdao Li,
08 9368 3843