A Better Barley
I work on the breeding and genetics of barley, in all its forms and uses. My team and I seek to understanding the genetic basis of economically important traits and to use this knowledge to develop new varieties of barley that will contribute to economic development, health, and sustainability. The traits we work on generally show complex inheritance – therefore we use strategies falling under the general heading of “quantitative trait locus” (QTL) analysis. Traits include: barley for health and human nutrition, the contributions of barley to beer flavor, the genetic basis of terroir, genetics of climate change-related traits, and resistance to plant diseases. Regarding plant health, the current rogue’s gallery of diseases includes: stripe rust, stem rust, scald, and Fusarium Head Blight.
My interest in plant health bloomed when I was a Masters student. I aced the final in a plant pathology class and the instructor wrote an encouraging personal message on the exam. Fast forward roughly 5 years later, when barley stripe rust was first reported in the US. Suddenly, I had an opportunity to put the instructor’s encouragement into practice. This led to a long-term collaboration with the late Dr. Hugo Vivar of ICARDA/CIMMYT in Mexico, multiple graduate students and visiting scientists for Mexico and South America, and our continued engagement with stripe rust resistance genetics and breeding. Plant breeding is all about developing new varieties that contribute to economic development and that do so in a way that enhances both natural ecosystems and agro ecosystems. Healthy plants are productive plants, with minimal input required.
For the traits listed earlier, our first challenge is to create a path to unraveling complex inheritance by a systematic dissection of the underlying genetic network. That can lead to identifying candidate genes determining the trait of interest, or it can generate markers that allow us to select more efficiently for the trait of interest. Once a resistance gene is mapped, that lays the groundwork for using its unique genetic barcode as a tool to discover the genomic framework within which the gene operates and–potentially–selecting for the diagnostic barcode rather than the resistance trait itself.
The Barley Band
Our team is a continuum: Many team members have come and gone and are spread across all continents, except Antarctica (unless, perhaps, they are visiting there). The current team members, in alphabetical order, include:
Brigid Meints. Post-doc. Heads our project on naked, multi-use barleys for organic systems.
Campbell Morrissy. PhD student. Digging into the contributions of barley to flavor of beer and spirits.
Javier Hernandez. Post-doc. Heads our quantitative resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses projects.
Laura Helgerson. Senior FRA. Heads our greenhouse, germplasm development, curation, and distribution operations.
Margaret Halstead. MS student. Digging into genotype x environment interaction and variety performance.
Scott Fisk. Senior FRA. Heads our field and malting operations.
Tanya Filichkin. Heads our barley doubled haploid production facility.