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Researchers Map the Barley Genome to Improve Future of Beer

Researchers Map the Barley Genome to Improve Future of Beer


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Would you believe the barley genome is twice as long as the human genome?

There's a lot of elements that go into brewing a beer but now, scientists believe they may have cracked the code to producing a better beer. Researchers just published the genome map of barley, and say that understanding the genome will strengthen the crop and make it resistant to weather changes.

Barley, reports Business Insider, is the fourth-largest crop in the world. Of course, barley isn't just used in beer (though we like it that way); it's also used in the production of whiskey and cereal, as well as in the production of animal bedding and feed.

The researchers behind the genome mapping said that mapping barley was extremely difficult, because the size of the barley genome is twice the size of the human genome. But they were able to publish the order and structure of the 32,000 genes associated with barley, and specifically, the regions that carry more resistance to disease. That could mean in the future, barley produced through a breeding of varieties could better survive climate change, poor weather conditions, and diseases — and that could mean a lot for the future of food security down the line. It could also mean that millions of pounds of barley are saved each year, notes The Drinks Business. In the near future, though, beer drinkers should raise a glass to these scientists — after all, that barley in your beer goes a long way.


Genomic regions containing two-thirds of all annotated barley genes have been sequenced

Sequencing and assembling the barley genome is challenging not just because of its 5.1 billion base pairs size, but because over 80 percent of the sequence is repetitive. Credit: Craig Nagy

Researchers generated nearly 16,000 sequences of gene-containing regions for barley, mapping approximately two-thirds of all annotated barley genes.

While researchers continue to work on a complete reference sequence for the barley genome, the determination of improved sequence assemblies for the regions rich in barley genes allows the research community to conduct comparative genomics studies with related crops such as rice and other grasses for applications including biofuel production.

One of the reasons barley is a candidate bioenergy crop is that, as one of the most widely grown food crops, plant breeders have figured out how to produce high yields. For commercial purposes, both the straw and the grain can be utilized to produce biofuels. However, producing a reference sequence for barley has been challenging because over 80 percent of the genome (which is already 67 percent larger than the human genome) is repetitive. To help with the international effort to produce a reference barley genome, in 2011, the DOE Joint Genome Institute, a DOE Office of Science User Facility, selected a proposal to develop a genetic map of the barley genome as a Community Science Program project.

Building off of worldwide efforts, a team involving DOE JGI researchers recently reported that nearly two-thirds of barley's gene space has been mapped. In the study published ahead online August 7, 2015 in the Plant Journal, the team identified and sequenced over 15,000 bacterial artificial chromosomes (BACs) containing barley genes, comprising roughly 1.7 billion base pairs (Gbp) of sequence out of the estimated 5.1 Gbp that makes up the barley genome.

1.7 Gb of gene-rich genomic sequence expand our knowledge of the characteristic features of the gene-containing regions," the team reported. "Furthermore, this resource will improve the speed and precision of map-based cloning and marker development in barley and closely related species while supporting ongoing efforts in obtaining a complete reference sequence of barley."

The researchers made use of an earlier project in which a team, also involved DOE JGI researchers, evaluated a method for assembling complex plant genomes. Using the technique called POPSEQ, researchers rapidly and inexpensively assembled barley genome datasets as proof of principle. The knowledge of these particular genes will materially help the community of scientists interested in research on barley exploit them. Importantly, having a much higher-resolution sequence-based map of the barley genome will make it easier for scientists to search out and identify genes involved in traits of interest for a variety of uses, among them generation of biomass for energy.


Life on Mars

On the side of Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, six individuals are living in Mars-like conditions as part of a NASA-funded behavioral research study. We chronicle their mission in 360 video.

For the experiments, the students had a small patch of a greenhouse, with a mesh screen reducing the sunlight to mimic Mars’ greater distance from the sun.

What did "fabulous” in pure Martian soil was mesclun, a mix of small salad greens, even without fertilizer, Dr. Guinan said.

When vermiculite, a mineral often mixed in with heavy and sticky Earth soils, was added to the Martian stuff, almost all of the plants thrived. Because astronauts would likely not be hauling vermiculite from Earth but might have cardboard boxes, Dr. Guinan also tried mixing cutup cardboard into the Martian soil. That worked too.

One group of students hypothesized that coffee grinds could similarly be used as a filler to loosen up the soil. They figured the astronauts would be drinking coffee anyway, and coffee would also be a natural fertilizer. “Also, it may help acidify Martian soil,” said Elizabeth Johnson, a Villanova senior who took the class. Mars soil is alkaline, with a pH of 8 to 9, she said, compared to 6 to 7 on Earth.

“We think the coffee has a lot of potential,” Ms. Johnson said.

Her team’s carrots, spinach and scallions sprouted quickly in the mix of coffee grounds and Martian soil, initially growing faster than even plants in a control planter full of Earth potting mix.

Dr. Guinan is not the first to try growing plants in Martian soil. Five years ago, Wieger Wamelink, a scientist at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands had the same idea, a way to combine his work — ecology research — with his interest in science fiction.

The first round of experiments grew 14 types of plants including rye, tomatoes and carrots in Martian soil, simulated lunar soil and Earth soil. Almost all of the plants germinated, Dr. Wamelink and his colleagues reported.

Like Dr. Guinan, Dr. Wamelink found that mixing organic material into Martian soil greatly improved plant growth. They verified that crops grown in Martian soil were equally nutritious and safe to eat. In 2016, the researchers hosted meals cooked from their research crops for more than 50 people who had supported the work with crowdfunding donations.

Last year, they showed earthworms could live, even reproduce, in Martian soil.


Now that scientists have mapped the barley genome, better beer could be the result

Gstockstudio/123RF Mapping the human genome? Meh! The genome-mapping project we’re really excited about is the one that’s been carried out over the past decade by a pioneering group of 77 intrepid scientists from around the globe. What they’ve been selflessly working on is a project to map the barley genome — with the noble goal of one day bringing us better beer.

The research is published in the latest issue of the journal Nature, with the sober-sounding title, “A chromosome conformation capture ordered sequence of the barley genome.” It lays out the work of the International Barley Genome Sequencing Consortium (yes, that’s a real thing!), which involved scientists from Germany, Australia, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the good old United States. All were brought together by a desire to find out more about one of the central components of alcoholic drinks, dating back to the Stone Age.

As it turns out, mapping the barley genome is actually immensely complicated. It’s close to twice the size of the human genome, and a whopping 80 percent is made up of highly repetitive sequences, which can’t easily be assigned to specific portions of the genome with the kind of accuracy that’s needed.

With the insights the team has come up with, however, the hope is now that it will be possible to help breeders optimize genetic diversity in their crops to improve the quality of the barley that’s grown.

Hey, between this and initiatives like the University of California, San Diego’s mission to brew beer in space, or the use of AI to brew the perfect pint, we couldn’t be more excited to witness the world’s sharpest minds focusing their attention on alcoholic beverages.

(For the record, we should also point out that we were just using dramatic license by describing the Human Genome Project as anything other than awesome at the top of this story. We just really, really like our beer. Everything else is just pale ale in comparison!)


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Unlike his colleagues at the beginning of the 20th century, Ernest S. Salmon, a professor at Wye College outside of London, was certain that American hop varieties belonged to one distinct species and all European varieties to another. “All our books tell us that the varieties of hops cultivated over the world have all arisen from the one species, Humulus lupulus,” he wrote in 1917. “I am convinced that this is not the case.”

Salmon had taken charge of a nascent hop breeding program at Wye in 1906. Pointing to Gregor Mendel’s principles of heredity, he was certain that resin content and aroma were what Mendel called “fixed characters”—that is, they were innate to a given hop variety, rather than the region in which it was grown. His goal was to create hybrid, transatlantic hop strains that would feature the aroma profile British brewers preferred, but with the higher resin content found in American hops.

Professor W.T. Macoun, Dominion Horticulturist for Canada, provided the North American hop that Salmon needed. He collected it in the town of Morden, south of Winnipeg in Manitoba. Hops grew wild along a creek that flowed through the town. “Old residents in this town assure me that there has never been an introduction of cultivated hops in the district,” Macoun wrote. The hops were transplanted to town lots to cover unsightly places.

Salmon planted the hop, which he labeled BB1, in 1917 in the nursery at Wye, where it was pollinated by an unknown English male hop. He harvested the seeds in the fall of 1918, raised hundreds of BB1’s children in a greenhouse beginning in 1919, and planted the most promising of them in the nursery in 1922. He chose to name and release two of them after more than a decade of brewing trials.

Neither brewers nor farmers in the United Kingdom embraced those first two varieties, Brewer’s Gold and Bullion, but there was no going back. When Salmon began at Wye College, hops contained 4% alpha acids on average, and 6% at the most. Breeders have since created varieties with cones that contain more than 20% alpha acids, almost always using cultivars that lead back to Salmon’s two breeds. Relatively recently, the definition of what constitutes a pleasant hoppy flavor and aroma has also broadened to include fruity and exotic characteristics. Popular varieties such as Citra, Mosaic, Centennial, and Sorachi Ace are all, to varying degrees, offsprings of Brewer’s Gold.

Ultimately, Salmon’s assertion that hops from America are different than those from England or the Continent proved correct, the scientific consensus now being that the lineages are separated by more than a million years of evolution. More recently, chemical and molecular genetic analysis has established the higher diversity of American wild hops compared to European wild hops.

A century ago, Salmon needed luck to locate a wild hop that proved his thesis was correct. But today, hop scientists have tools to establish if a plant found growing on its own in Upstate New York or the American Southwest is native, is one that originated from across the Atlantic, or is perhaps an American wild/European hybrid. The use of next generation sequencing (NGS) in particular has begun to push hop breeding, and therefore hops, further. And it isn’t just hops. That technology will also change two other essential beer ingredients: yeast and barley.

“[Sequencing] helps us understand where different yeast strains (or hop or malt varieties) come from and how they are related and perhaps, more importantly, it helps us breed better varieties that combine the best properties of parental varieties and strains,” says Kevin Verstrepen, a yeast geneticist at the Catholic University of Leuven and the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology.

Next generation sequencing technologies first became available in the aughts, replacing a first generation that emerged in 1977. They are much faster, more accurate, and, as a result, more cost-efficient. “Today … just one student can do all the work that was accomplished in genomics theses during the 1980s and 1990s in less than a second, at a tiny fraction of the cost,” write Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall in their 2019 book, “A Natural History of Beer.”

Sequencing begins with ordering the building blocks called nucleotide bases (there are four kinds) within a small piece, or strand, of DNA. The fragments are aligned based on overlapping portions to assemble the sequences of larger regions of DNA and, eventually, entire chromosomes. A genome is the sum total of an organism’s DNA. The Sanger method, developed in the 1970s by British biochemist Frederick Sanger, sequences one single DNA fragment at a time. NGS platforms are able to sequence millions of fragments simultaneously.

Scientists first sequenced the species of yeast used by brewers and bakers in 1996, determining the order of 12,057,500 chemical subunits. This was a step toward sequencing the human genome, a project which took more than a decade and cost a reported $3 billion overall (sequencing the first human genome itself cost about $1 billion). Today, labs charge between $300 and $1,500 for the same work. Sequencing has even become cheap enough that in 2012, Illumina, a San Diego biotechnology company located not far from White Labs, sequenced 96 strains of yeast free of charge in order to test new NGS machinery.

Not long after, Troels Prahl, head of research and development at White Labs, learned a Belgian group headed by Verstrepen was also exploring the phenotypic landscape of yeast—that is, linking what was determined genetically with observable traits. Together the two teams sequenced the genomes of 157 yeast strains, most of them used by brewers. Published in 2016, “Domestication and Divergence of Saccharomyces cerevisiae Beer Yeasts” reconstructs the history of how yeast evolved over centuries, draws a family tree, and provides a map for breeding and strain development in the future.

Plant genomes are most often larger than the human genome because they have many more repetitive elements. Between 2000 and 2008, scientists sequenced the genomes of only 10 plants. Discovering markers most often called SNPs (short for single-nucleotide polymorphism) first found in the human genome made it easier to draw genetic maps and to begin to associate markers with traits. Reference genomes for barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) and hops (Humulus lupulus) are included among the more than 600 plant genomes that have since been assembled.

It took 77 scientists from 10 countries 10 years to piece together the ordered sequence of the barley genome, published in 2017. Researchers quickly discovered that the gene for alpha-amylase, the enzyme that breaks down the starch in malted barley into sugar, repeats multiple times. “That really adds to our knowledge on how to improve the levels of that. With multiple copies we can choose which ones we want to increase,” Gary Hanning, director of global barley research for Anheuser-Busch InBev, said when the research was published.

The first reported identification of molecular markers in hops was in 1995. Four years later, a rather modest 224 had been discovered. Today, more than one million SNPs have been found across the thousands of hop cultivars worldwide. However, matching markers and desirable traits—whether they are for disease resistance or unique flavors—may take longer for some characteristics than others.

“We haven’t got there yet. It’s a new frontier,” says Paul Matthews, who works as a senior research scientist at Hopsteiner, an international hop trading company with breeding programs in the United States and Germany. “We’re still in proof of concept.”

Today, breeders—whether they specialize in hops, peas, or chickens—ask themselves the same question that Gregor Mendel did more than 150 years ago: “Can I predict how a trait is passed on to the next generation?” Mendel’s principles of inheritance often serve as a guide. Before Mendel’s work became widely accepted, people believed that traits occur in offspring as a result of a blend of parental characteristics. He established that the “fixed characters” Salmon referred to (now understood to be genes) could be dominant or recessive.

The process of cross-pollinating varieties to create seeds is different for barley than hops, but the steps to develop new varieties follow similar, slow paths. Breeders need to be thinking decades ahead. “You have to have a lot of aroma types ready, but you must wait for brewers to come to you with their ideas,” says Anton Lutz, the breeder at Germany Hop Research Center. “Then you can tell them, ‘I have it.’”

The following timeline at North Dakota State University is typical for barley:

Year 1: Crosses are made and agronomic characteristics of progeny are evaluated.

Year 2: Selected lines are grown and tested, including for disease-resistance and brewing qualities.

Years 3-5: Lines advance through three sets of field trials and are sent to labs for quality analysis and disease resistance. Lines that do well are sent to the American Malting Barley Association for their first pilot scale evaluation in Year 5.

Years 6-7: Lines are evaluated in field trials in up to 10 locations. The best are submitted to the American Malting Barley Association (AMBA) for plant scale testing in Year 7.

Years 8-10: Plant scale testing continues, with more field trials. Based on acceptance by AMBA members, a line is given a varietal name and released to farmers.

Kevin P. Smith at the University of Minnesota explains that finding new genetic markers may not just speed up this laborious process, but could also expand the amount of change possible within a particular time frame. For instance, his lab could use a genetic sample taken after Year 2 to predict the malt extract of a potential variety. “We would have had to wait until Year 4 or 5 before [measuring it],” he says. In addition, testing a sample for markers costs $20, compared to $200 to fully analyze a barley sample.

Hop breeding is also just as slow. John Henning, USDA research geneticist in Oregon, made the cross in 2000 that resulted in a hop variety he named Triumph it wasn’t released to farmers until nearly two decades later, in 2019.

Generally, the USDA suggests would-be breeders follow this timeline:

Year 1: Seedlings are grown in the greenhouse and selected for powdery mildew resistance.

Years 2-4: Plants are assessed in the field, evaluated and harvested, then chemically analyzed.

Years 5-8: Selections are grown on multi-hill plots. Evaluation continues and complete data is collected. Samples are sent to breweries for pilot brews. Breweries select favorites.

Years 9-onwards: Selections are grown in commercial farm plots. Hops are tested at multiple breweries. Brewers accept or reject the hop.

As with barley, finding genetic markers for desirable traits in hops may shorten the breeding process, and increase the numbers of hop plants that can be evaluated. However, unlike barley, hops introduce some added genetic complexities.

Important research funded by Hopsteiner has shed light on why and when hops may not follow Mendel’s principles. To put it simply, hops do not always reproduce as would be expected. Doing research at Florida State University, Katherine Easterling, who has since joined Matthews’ Hopsteiner team, observed that during sexual reproduction, chromosomes that should have been paired in twos with donut-like shapes were linked together in long chains and rings instead.

“This observation means that there is a sequence similarity that extends beyond the parental chromosome pairs,” she says. “Although some plants and animals have been reported to demonstrate that type of chromosomal behavior, it’s considered very abnormal, and the offspring from such strange behavior can be less viable or show unexpected traits.” Jargon aside, that means that, no matter which desirable characteristics they might exhibit, certain hop varieties may still not be suitable for breeding.

“Yes, that is a problem,” says Matthews. “Some genotypes are more normal. Some are crazy. Not every variety is the same. Using technology we can look for hops a little more normal. This could change breeding forever.”

As for yeast, breeders can produce new strains in a matter of days instead of years, but they present a different challenge. When reproducing sexually, yeast adhere to Mendel’s laws. However, charting the evolution of beer yeasts revealed that 40% of strains are inclined not to reproduce sexually, and others have dramatically reduced fertility. Most often they divide through asexual budding. In Verstrepen’s lab, “We have really optimized the conditions so that strains that have very poor sexual cycles can still be persuaded to breed it is all about tweaking the environment.”

Using a robot, the lab may generate hundreds of new strains a day. “We can create millions of crosses, but measuring which are the best ones takes time and effort. And, breeding is a numbers game. Of course, we have gotten very good at selecting the right parents to start the breeding but even with the best parents, making more crosses increases the chances of finding one super yeast,” Verstrepen says.

For some properties, like fermentation speed, scientists use “micro-droplets”: tiny drops of wort that are barely larger than a yeast cell. “Each droplet gets one yeast cell, and we monitor how quickly that cell can consume the sugars. That way, we can test thousands of yeasts instead of hundreds when we do it using the normal lab equipment,” Verstrepen notes.

Shortly before the results of the yeast sequencing project were published, White Labs founder Chris White made it clear how important the research is.

“Without unlocking the genetic information we are still thinking like the 1860s,” he told an audience of homebrewers in Baltimore. He showed a slide with Saccharomyces cerevisiae—Ale yeast—“top fermenting” on one side, and Saccharomyces pastorianus—Lager yeast—“bottom fermenting” on the other. “I’m glad you’re coming to this talk because we are kind of on the brink. This is the old way of talking about this. There is going to be a new way in the next few years.”

Discussing why modern commercial tomatoes aren’t as tasty as heirloom varieties, Bob Holmes, author of “Flavor: The Science of Our Most Neglected Sense,” puts the blame on breeding practices. “We know that breeders of many crops have focused for decades on traits like disease resistance yield appearance uniform size and ease of packing, shipping, and processing … Their focus hasn’t been on flavor,” he writes.

Now armed with a map of the barley genome, breeders don’t have to focus on one trait at the possible expense of another. “Nothing has been done to breed flavor out,” says Scott Heisel, technical director at the American Malting Barley Association.

In the past, conventional wisdom held that malt flavor is created during malting. Breeders focused on agronomic traits and attributes, such as extract and amount of proteins. But recent experiments at Oregon State University now suggests variety also influences flavor. “We started this project with a question: Are there are novel flavors in barley that carry through malting and brewing and into beer? This is a revolutionary idea in the brewing world. We found that the answer is yes,” Pat Hayes said when the results of the OSU study were published.

Barley World, Hayes’ research group, crossbred Golden Promise, a British barley strain, with a variety bred at OSU, Full Pint. Beers were brewed, then tasted by trained panelists, with the original varieties and also hundreds of their offspring.

“The progeny are showing all possible combinations of those traits,” Hayes said. “And, since we had been doing DNA fingerprinting on these progeny, we can assign certain regions of the barley genome as being responsible for these flavors. We also found that there were some differences based on where the barley was grown, but the genetic effect was larger than the environment.”

Where the barley is grown is important, obviously, to craft maltsters and brewers committed to making local beer with locally grown grain. Nonetheless, the discovery of molecular markers has made “flavor” a larger part of the conversation, and one that will likely inform future breeding efforts. “We’ve really just started to think about how we can tackle flavor,” says Kevin Smith in Minnesota. “Are there certain things we can quantify?”

Next generation sequencing facilitates such change, but it also helps assure the future of the crops that are used to make beer. Breeders are already using markers to select for disease resistance. If they can find similar markers related to yield, they may create varieties of barley and hops that are more environmentally sustainable.

Four years ago, Hopsteiner began sending teams to the American Southwest and the countries of Georgia and Kazakhstan to collect wild hops. Crop scientists around the world are working to preserve genetic diversity that could help crops survive climate change, and those at Hopsteiner have found varieties in the Southwest that are more drought-resistant. It turns out those hops may also have unique flavors. Sequencing should help breeders identify markers for multiple traits.

Hop oil contains hundreds—potentially up to 1,000—compounds that contribute to aroma and flavor, some of which, like linalool and geraniol, are prominent in certain trendy, New World aroma varieties. Hopsteiner has now identified markers for some of those compounds. That could speed up the breeding process by two or three years, Matthews says. “You will see that in the near future. I can promise you that. I just can’t tell you when.”

Despite these advances, not everything has changed for the breeders of beer’s key ingredients—at least not yet. Many still make crosses much as Salmon did more than 100 years ago. “Absolutely the same,” says Peter Darby, who took over the breeding program at Wye College in 1981. “Choosing the mother and father: all the creativity is in that stage.”


New future for an old crop: barley enters the genomic age

Higher yields, improved pest and disease resistance and enhanced nutritional value are among the potential benefits of an international research effort that has resulted in the mapping of the barley genome.

The work - conducted by the International Barley Sequencing Consortium (IBSC), which includes Australian researchers based at the University of Adelaide's Waite Campus - is described in a paper published today in the prestigious journal Nature.

Barley is the world's fourth most important cereal crop, and the second most important crop in Australian agriculture. Australia produces around seven million tonnes of barley a year, 65% of which is exported at a value of $1.3 billion annually. Australia also accounts for one third of the world's malting barley trade.

The Australian research team was led by scientists at the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG) and the University of Adelaide, who worked with colleagues at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls.

"This new analysis of all the genes in the barley genome is a major step forward for agricultural science and industry," says Australian research leader and a senior author of the Nature paper, Professor Peter Langridge, Chief Executive Officer of the ACPFG.

"This will greatly accelerate the work in Australia and elsewhere to improve the quality of barley, enhance its disease and pest resistance and, most importantly, support efforts to improve the tolerance of barley to environmental stresses such as heat and drought."

First cultivated more than 15,000 years ago, barley belongs to the same family as wheat and rye. Together, they provide about 30% of all calories consumed worldwide.

"Because barley is very closely related to wheat, these results from barley will have a major impact on wheat research," Professor Langridge says. "Wheat is Australia's most important crop, and improvements in wheat production globally will be a key to ensuring global food security."

The barley genome is almost twice the size of that of humans. Determining the sequence of its DNA has presented a major challenge for the research team. This is mainly because its genome contains a large proportion of closely related sequences, which are difficult to piece together.

The team's Nature paper provides a detailed overview of the functional portions of the barley genome, revealing the order and structure of most of its 32,000 genes. It also includes a detailed analysis of where and when genes are switched on in different tissues and at different stages of development.

The team has described regions of the genome carrying genes that are important to providing resistance to diseases, offering scientists the best possible understanding of the crop's immune system.

The Australian component of this research has been funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) and the South Australian Government.

The full paper can be found on Nature's website .

The University of Adelaide Waite Campus

The University of Adelaide's Waite Campus is the leading agricultural research, education and commercialisation cluster in the Southern Hemisphere, bringing together 1200 researchers from the University and co-located partners. This unique model of university, government and industry partners concentrates expertise in a range of agricultural science areas. The University's School of Agriculture, Food and Wine and the Waite Research Institute are both based at the Waite Campus.

International Barley Sequencing Consortium

The IBSC was founded in 2006 and includes scientists from Germany, Japan, Finland, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and China. www.barleygenome.org

Barley - importance to Australia

Barley is worth around $1.3 billion annually to Australia's exports. We produce almost seven million tonnes of barley each year on an area of around four million hectares. Australia accounts for around 32% of the international trade in malting barley, although we're only about 5% of the world's annual barley production.

Malting barley (37% of the total barley produced) underpins the beer sector, which is worth more than $5 billion to the Australian economy. Lower quality grain and by-products of the malting process are a major component of the animal feed that underpins meat and dairy production. Over the past 50 years, barley grain yields have more than doubled - most of this improvement can be attributed to genetics.

Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics

The ACPFG was established in 2003 by the South Australian Government and the Australian Federal Government through the ARC and the GRDC. ACPFG improves cereal crops' tolerance to environmental stresses such as drought, heat, salinity and nutrient toxicities - major causes of yield and quality loss throughout the world and significant problems for cereal growers. www.acpfg.com.au

ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls

The ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls is a collaboration between the Universities of Adelaide, Melbourne and Queensland in partnership with the South Australian Government and seven international institutions. Established in 2011, its research is focused on the biosynthesis and re-modelling of plant cell wall polysaccharides, which play important roles in human health and renewable biofuels. The Director of the Centre is Professor Geoff Fincher, who is also an author on the Nature paper.

Both ACPFG and the Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls are based at the University of Adelaide's Waite Campus.


Developing a &lsquosuper grain&rsquo

Cracking the genetic code led Professor Li to a deeper exploration of what makes the best barley. He uses the example of a brick in a wall to illustrate how variations in copy numbers and orientations can be used to target key traits for new varieties.

&ldquoEvery brick &ndash or gene &ndash can look similar but different numbers of bricks put together will form a new structure,&rdquo he said.

&ldquoLike a brick, genes can have a different orientation and be arranged in different ways to create a different structure, which in doing so, can create a different function or enhance a function, like greater heat tolerance or nitrogen efficiency.&rdquo

In collaboration with scientists around the world, Professor Li&rsquos team is identifying genes in various types of barley that are more resilient to droughts, pests, poor soils and disease.

This breakdown and mapping of every strain will enable the researchers to identify all the most desirable traits in each and combine them into one &lsquosuper grain.&rsquo


&ldquoThe benefits of cracking the DNA code and combining all of the best traits into one variety could include everything from improving the yield and quality of WA malt and feed barley production, to assisting with food production in developing countries and improving food biosecurity.

&ldquoThe development of a super grain would also give growers a higher profit margin and greater yields. This in turn makes our barley more desirable to international markets,&rdquo he said.

It also means better quality beer.


Beer supply threatened by future weather extremes

Barley yields are expected to decrease substantially as severe droughts and heat extremes become more frequent due to climate change, reports a study published online this week in Nature Plants. As a result, beer will become scarcer and more expensive.

Beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage in the world by volume consumed, and its main ingredient, barley, is particularly sensitive to extreme weather events. Although the frequency and severity of drought and heat extremes increase substantially in a range of future climate scenarios by five Earth system models, the vulnerability of beer supply to such extremes has never been assessed.

Wei Xie and colleagues model the vulnerability to future weather extremes of both barley production and the subsequent beer supply. The authors find that the average loss of barely yields will range from 3% to 17%, depending on the predicted severity of the weather. Declining barley yields will result in proportionally larger decreases in the barley made available for beer production as more essential commodities are prioritized. This will result in corresponding decreases in beer consumption and increases in beer prices, the authors suggest, depending on national economic status and culture. One of the most affected countries, for example, is Ireland - where beer prices could increase by between 43% and 338% by 2099 under the most severe climate scenario.


Women beer drinkers 'increase psoriasis risk'

The study found that women who drank five beers a week doubled their risk of developing the condition compared with women who did not drink.

The Boston study, in Archives of Dermatology, looked at more than 82,000 female nurses aged 27 to 44 and their drinking habits from 1991 until 2005.

Non-alcoholic beer, wine and spirits were not found to increase the risk.

In the study, researchers said that woman who drank more than two alcoholic drinks a week increased their risk of psoriasis by two-thirds compared with non-drinkers.

For women who drank five glasses of beer per week their risk of developing psoriasis was 1.8 times higher again.

When stricter criteria were used to confirm psoriasis cases, their risk was increased 2.3 times.

Yet women who drank any amount of low- or non-alcoholic beer, white wine, red wine or spirits per week were not found to be at increased risk.

Author Dr Abrar Qureshi, from Harvard Medical School, Boston, wrote in the journal: "Non-light beer was the only alcoholic beverage that increased the risk of psoriasis, suggesting that certain non-alcoholic components of beer, which are not found in wine or liquor, may play an important role in new-onset psoriasis."

The study suggests that it could be the gluten-containing barley, used in the fermentation of beer, which is the cause of the increased psoriasis risk.

Previous studies have shown that a gluten-free diet may improve psoriasis in patients who are sensitive to gluten.

People with psoriasis may have a so-called latent-gluten sensitivity, compared with people without psoriasis, says the study.

"Women with a high risk of psoriasis may consider avoiding higher intake of non-light beer," the authors conclude.

Psoriasis is a chronic skin disease characterised by itchy red scaly patches that most commonly appear on the knees, elbows and scalp but can show up anywhere, including the face.

The effects can range from mild to disfiguring enough to be socially disabling.


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