Mapping cotton and barley

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Photo of Professor Chengdao Li.

Barley researcher Professor Chengdao Li at Murdoch University.

PHOTO: Wayne Rochat

Australian scientists help crack barley genetic code

An international consortium involving researchers from Western Australia has completed a map of the barley genome, allowing the development of new and improved barley varieties to be sped up.

A partnership between the Department of Agriculture and Food, WA (DAFWA), and Murdoch University – the Western Barley Genetics Alliance – was a major contributor to the research, with funding from the GRDC.

“Mapping the barley genome effectively provides a ‘dictionary’ from which genetic ‘words’ and ‘sentences’ can be produced that identify the genes that control traits such as yield, adaption to climate, quality, and pest and disease tolerance,” the alliance’s director, Murdoch University Professor Chengdao Li, says.

Professor Li says the barley genome map pinpointed genetic information from which molecular markers and genomic breeding tools can be developed. “Cereal crops, including bread wheat, durum, barley and rye, have some of the most complex genetic histories among the world’s cultivated species,” he says.

“Barley is the first crop in this tribe to be sequenced in such detail. To put the research into perspective, the barley genome is 12 times larger than the rice genome and more complex.”

DAFWA’s executive director of grains research and development, Mark Sweetingham, says the ground-breaking research has laid the foundations that will enable plant breeders to target and combine more favourable gene combinations to develop new high-performance barley varieties, tailored to local environments and markets. The alliance worked in partnership with scientists from 10 countries.

Latest global GM figures

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) has released its annual report on the adoption and distribution of GM crops in 2016, with growers in 26 countries – 19 developing and seven industrial – growing GM crops across 185.1 million hectares.

Australian growers continue to embrace crop biotechnology, with an increase in GM crop plantings of 29 per cent, to a total of about 850,500 hectares in 2016. This is mostly from GM cotton, which saw a significant increase in plantings due to the introduction of new GM varieties. GM cotton comprises nearly 100 per cent of the Australian cotton crop.

GM herbicide-tolerant canola was grown on about 405,000 hectares in 2016.

Report highlights include the following:

  • The four major GM crops were soybeans, maize, cotton and canola.
  • Half of the global GM crop acreage comprises GM soybeans (91.4 million hectares).
  • Seventy-eight per cent of the global soybean crop is GM, 64 per cent of all the world’s cotton is GM, and 26 per cent of maize and 24 per cent of canola were GM varieties in 2016.
  • The area planted to herbicide-tolerant crops was 86.5 million hectares in 2016, occupying 47 per cent of the global GM area. The herbicide-tolerance trait is in soybeans, canola, maize, alfalfa and cotton.
  • The use of stacked traits (herbicide tolerance and insect resistance) has dramatically increased to 41 per cent of the global GM acreage, up 29 per cent in 2016 to 75.4 million hectares from 58.4 million hectares in 2015.
  • The US led GM crop planting in 2016 with 72.9 million hectares, followed by Brazil (49.1 million hectares), Argentina (23.8 million hectares), Canada (11.6 million hectares) and India (10.8 million hectares).

The ISAAA report states that GM crops contribute to sustainable food security and climate change by increasing crop productivity, conserving biodiversity, providing a better environment, reducing CO2 emissions and helping to alleviate poverty by helping 18 million small-holder growers and their families, totalling approximately 65 million people.

Despite these successes, challenges remain for the successful commercialisation of GM crops in the pipeline, according to ISAAA. These challenges include regulatory barriers, the growing trade disruptions brought by asynchronous approvals and thresholds on low-level presence in GM-crop-trading countries, and the need for continuous dialogue among all stakeholders for the expeditious understanding and appreciation of biotechnology, emphasising benefits and safety.

GRDC Research Code AAA00008


Logo of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia

The Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia (ABCA) is an industry initiative established to increase public awareness of, and encourage informed debate and decision-making about, gene technology. The organisation is supported by a number of agricultural sectors and organisations all working to ensure the Australian farming sector can appropriately access and adopt this technology for the benefit of Australian agriculture.