Scientists used CRISPR to improve the quality of barley

Genetic engineering allows changing some characteristics of various organisms. It is particularly important in food production, because we can improve yields, make crops more resistant and less reliant on pesticides and other chemicals that are harmful for the environment. Now an international team of scientists showed that a genetic tool known as CRISPR could be used to improve the quality of barley grain very rapidly.

Barley is a very important food crop globally and CRISPR would allow fine-tuning characteristics of this crop. Image credit: Rastrojo via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Barley is quite an important food crop for us. It is used in production of various food products, such as beer and bread. One of the more beneficial substances in barley is beta-glucan, which is a source of fermentable dietary fibre that protects against various human health conditions.  However, for brewing and distilling barley with lower levels of beta-glucan is preferred.

CRISPR is a very effective gene-editing tool. Some call it “gene scissors”, because it allows cutting out undesirable pieces of the organism’s genome and replacing them with something more useful. CRISPR can be used in a variety of fields – from medicine to production of food crops. Scientists believe that plant breeders will be able to use CRISPR to deliver new plant varieties with fine-tuned characteristics for different markets.

Now scientists used CRISPR to change beta-glucan levels in barley. Essentially, this could result in crops that are still rich in beta-glucan, but also suitable for brewing and distilling. Scientists used a reverse genetics approach to generate changes in members of the gene superfamily responsible for making beta-glucan. Not only this approach allows improving grain quality, scientists can also introduce some specific changes that would be desirable for specific industries that use barley. In other words, plant breeders will be able to make specialized barley for beer, bread and other uses. 

More than anything, this study shows the value of genetic engineering in food production. Matthew Tucker, joint senior author of the study, explained: “This study has brought real immediate benefit in terms of understanding how gene editing can help improve the quality of barley crops. And it’s part of our overall ongoing efforts to apply the latest genetic techniques to deliver improvements for the food and feed industries.”

The world is growing hungrier. We need to increase food production, but at the same time we need to reduce the environmental impact of farming. This can only be done through genetic engineering. Improving the quality of crops will create more and better food. And, hopefully, we can reduce chemical pollution at the same time.


Source: University of Adelaide

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