Adelaide researchers instrumental in mapping genome for barley

18 October 2012


Adelaide scientists have inspired a huge international team effort to map the barley genome, revealing the crop’s most intimate secrets for the first time.

The research published today in the prestigious journal Nature is the key to breeding better barley, such as drought and heat-tolerant  varieties that resist pests  and disease.

University of Adelaide Professor Peter Langridge, at the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics on the Waite Campus, is excited about the potential to transform one of the world’s oldest crops.

“We’ve gone out and worked out where all of the genes sit, within the barley genome,” he said.

“So we can go to a region of the barley genome and say: ‘Here are genes involved in seed development, or here are genes involved in disease resistance’. We can go in and we can target particular areas now, in ways we couldn’t before.”

The results can be used to create new barley varieties, either by genetic engineering or conventional breeding, “because it tells us where key genes are”, Professor Langridge said.

“It allows us to look for new variation that we can bring in to the breeding programs,” he said.

“We can provide information to the breeders about what they can select for.”

The international project was a huge undertaking, because the barley genome is twice the size of the human genome.

Professor Langridge said this should come as no surprise, because “there are things that plants can do, that humans can’t do”.

“They can photosynthesise, they can fix carbon,” he said.

“The other thing is that plants are stuck in one place, they can’t escape from the climate and the weather, so they need all sorts of special mechanisms to cope with that stress and that variability.”

Barley is Australia’s second most important crop, after wheat, with around seven million tonnes of barley a year, worth $1.3 billion annually. About 65 per cent is exported.

The International Barley Sequencing Consortium was founded in 2006, following an important meeting in Adelaide. The consortium includes scientists from Germany, Japan, Finland, Australia, the UK, the US and China.