Wheat and barley are staple food crops whose production needs to increase dramatically to meet future food demands.
As the world’s human population continues to balloon and land available for agriculture continues to shrink, we’ll need to find new ways to produce cereals like wheat and barley in more sustainable ways.
“Wheat and barley are staple food crops around the world but their production needs to increase dramatically to meet future food demands,” explains Ken Chalmers, an associate professor at the University of Adelaide’s School of Agriculture, Food & Wine. “It is estimated that wheat production alone must increase by more than 50% over current levels by 2050 to feed the growing global population.”
Chalmers and his colleagues have an answer to how we can help meet those growing demands: unlocking the entire gene set of these plants to give breeders the necessary tools to boost their crop yields.
“Advances in genomics have accelerated breeding and the improvement of yield and quality in crops including rice and maize, but similar efforts in wheat and barley have been more challenging,” says Prof. Peter Langridge, who also worked on the research whose findings have been published in a paper.
“This is largely due to the size and complexity of their genomes, our limited knowledge of the key genes controlling yield, and the lack of genome assembly data for multiple lines of interest to breeders,” he adds.
Complicating matters is that wheat and barley cultivars around the world came with a wide range of gene variants and diverse genomic structures that influence such key traits they have as their yield and tolerance to droughts and diseases.
“This variation cannot be captured with a single genome sequence,” Chalmers says. “Only by sequencing multiple and diverse genomes can we begin to understand the full extent of genetic variation, the pan genome.”
Together with another project conducted simultaneously in Australia, the researchers led by the two experts have sequenced multiple wheat and barley varieties from around the world, uncovering previously hidden genetic variations in these important crops.
The results can be used towards producing new generations of modern wheat and barley cultivars with far higher yields. Growing such cultivars will help feed plenty more people, but it could also have a positive impact on the environment. If less land is required to grow more food, more land can be kept as wildlife-rich natural areas or turned back into them.