OSU researchers study hardier barley

May 16, 2011
Pat Hayes
Pat Hayes, OSU’s barley breeder, teaches a graduate-level horticulture class at an OSU greenhouse. (Photo by Rachel Beck.)

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University researchers, supported by a major new initiative to produce climate-change tolerant crops, are working on a hardier variety of barley that can be grown in frostier regions of the United States – and have improved yields and traits allowing growers and processors to become more competitive in the global market.

"If we can make barley more cold-tolerant, we can expand the range of where we can plant the crop," said Pat Hayes, head of the barley breeding program in OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Hayes is part of a $25 million grant to produce new climate change-tolerant barley and wheat varieties. The five-year grant comes from the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture and funds a national team of researchers, breeders and educators to identify genetic data and breed the wheat and barley varieties. Hayes will oversee the $849,629 barley research component of the grant.

Cold-tolerant barley has been a focus of OSU's breeding program for some time, Hayes said, so it was a perfect fit for the school to take the lead on the grant's barley unit. Hayes recently had a paper on the genetics of winter hardiness in barley accepted to The Plant Genome journal.

The work is important because barley and wheat are crucial components of the world's food supply, he said. As the Earth's climate changes, so do areas where cereal crops can be grown. If crop breeders can create barley varieties with better resistance to low temperatures, barley can be grown in more places, allowing growers to make a living and consumers to have food to eat.

"Cereals are a very important source of food, feed and, for barley, beverages," Hayes said. "They're a critical piece of the farm economy."

During the five years of the grant, researchers will test more than 21,000 different strains of barley, completing DNA profiles on each. They will use association mapping to find the genes responsible for specific traits, like drought tolerance, and use that knowledge to test varieties.

"The key thing we're all interested in," Hayes said, "is understanding the genetics of several traits very important to crops and all of agriculture – traits like water-use efficiency, nitrogen-use efficiency, and disease resistance."

Hayes said an exciting component of the grant is that it not only funds research on crops, but also on how to gather the data and make use of it. The results of the research will go into a national database, which scientists from across the country will then be able to access to develop better research tools.

"The beauty of this project is that in addition to all of this trait testing, we're generating very complete genetic data sets on every one," Hayes said. "What we're doing in plants now is the same thing that was the goal of the Human Genome Project, but plants are the subjects of this research."

Most of OSU's research will take place at Hyslop Farm, outside of Corvallis. Work will also be done at branch Experiment Stations, primarily in Pendleton and Hermiston. Graduate and undergraduate students will take part in the research, as part of the aim of the grant is to provide educational opportunities for future plant breeders. Students will be able to share their work with students in other states via online classrooms.

The University of California–Davis is the grant's lead institution.

Author: Rachel Beck
Source: Pat Hayes