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Barley Enters Genomics Age

23 October 2012

FRANCE - Higher yields, improved pest and disease resistance and enhanced nutritional value are among potential benefits of an international scientific research effort that has resulted in an integrated physical, genetical and functional sequence assembly of the barley genome, as described in a paper published in the prestigious journal Nature.

The new resource, produced by the International Barley Sequencing Consortium (IBSC), which includes the French Genomic Resource Center (INRA-CNRGV), will facilitate the development of new and better barley varieties able to cope with the demands of climate change. It should also help in the fight against cereal crop diseases, which cause millions in losses every year.

First cultivated more than 15,000 years ago, barley belongs to the Triticeae family - which includes wheat and rye - and that together provides around 30% of the calories consumed worldwide. It is the world’s fourth most important cereal crop both in terms of area of cultivation and in quantity of grain produced.

The barley genome is almost twice the size of that of humans and determining the sequence of its DNA has presented a major challenge. This is mainly because its genome contains a large proportion of closely related sequences, which are difficult to piece together. By developing and applying a series of innovative strategies that allowed them to circumvent these difficulties, the IBSC has succeeded in positioning the DNA sequences of the majority of barley genes into a linear order along each individual chromosome. This is an important milestone towards eventually unravelling a full barley genome sequence.

Their publication in Nature provides a detailed overview of the functional portions of the barley genome, revealing the order and structure of most of its 32,000 genes and a detailed analysis of where and when genes are switched on in different tissues and at different stages of development. They describe the location of dynamic regions of the genome that carry genes conferring resistance to diseases. This will provide a far better understanding of the crop’s immune system. Their achievements highlight with unprecedented detail the differences between a range of different barley cultivars and provides a springboard for the development of innovative approaches for the use of abundant genetic resources kept in genebanks around the globe.

INRA participated in the project through the Plant Genomic Resource Center (CNRGV) in Toulouse, France, which is responsible for preserving and maintaining plant genomic resources produced in the context of major projects by internationally-renowned laboratories. CNRGV gathered all the necessary genomic resources for sequencing the barley genome. It also elaborated specific tools that allowed highly efficient screenings of genomic regions in order to build a physical map of the barley genome.

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