The group’s findings were recently published as the cover article in top science journal Nature, marking the 12th time research from BYU professors has appeared in the publication over the past decade.
From oatmeal to oat milk, the nutrient-rich oat is increasingly in demand as a diet staple worldwide. But because of oat’s size and highly complicated genetic structure — oat has four times the DNA content and roughly three times the number of genes that humans have — breeders have struggled to improve production. New BYU research should help change that.
For the first time, researchers led by the ScanOats Industrial Research Centre have sequenced the entire genome of a modern oat (Avena sativa), the Swedish variety “Sang.” BYU plant and wildlife sciences professors Jeff Maughan and Rick Jellen played an important role in the international project, sequencing the genomes of two of oat’s ancient progenitors to elucidate its evolutionary history. The group’s findings were recently published as the cover article in top science journal Nature.
“About 50% of humans’ calories come from just a handful of foods — soybeans, corn, rice, wheat — which is incredibly risky if something were to disrupt those crops, especially as we face massive population growth and climate change,” Maughan said. “Improving oat production is a low-hanging fruit for diversifying the human diet because we know oat is a good energy source for us, and some breeding has already been done. Understanding oats’ genomic traits gives us a better handle on which crosses we should be making.”
The genome offers a roadmap for oat breeders to isolate the genes responsible for oat’s most nutritional benefits, as well as the genes that make oat crops hardier.
“Let’s say oat breeders want to breed an oat with higher potential beta-glucan, the soluble fiber in oat that combats heart disease and type two diabetes,” said Jellen. “They now know exactly where to look in screening a set of potential parents to see if they are good candidates.”
The reference genome shows the genetic basis of many of oat’s other powerful qualities, including explaining why oat is a gluten-free food: oat contains fewer of the proteins that trigger allergic responses in those with celiac disease or wheat intolerance. The research additionally identified the gene that controls the waxy coating on oat seeds, which protects the grain from water loss and heat damage. Ensuring that new oat varieties have this coating will help minimize the effects of drought and climate change on oat yield.
Comparing the modern oat genome to that of its ancestors was also crucial for maximizing oat’s breeding potential.
“Oat breeders for generations have wondered, why are we not making the kind of yield improvement that they’re making in wheat, barley, corn and rice breeding?” Jellen said. “It has to do with the fact that the oat genome is slowly reshuffling, creating far more chromosomal rearrangements than we see in other cereal crops. This can lead to duplications or deficiencies in oat offspring. It helps to know where those chromosomal breaks are in the parents to avoid those incompatibilities.”
Jellen and Maughan were uniquely positioned to sequence oat’s progenitors to illuminate exactly where the genome has been reshuffled.
In addition to Jellen’s 30-plus years of experience researching oat varieties and Maughan’s knowledge of genome sequencing, at BYU the researchers had access to two of the top-rated sequencing instruments available in the world at the Life Sciences DNA Sequencing Center. They also had access to the university’s Office of Research Computing, with a supercomputer that allowed them to puzzle together billions of pieces of information from the oat genome. “It was a no-brainer for them to reach out to us with the expertise and equipment that we had,” Maughan said.
For their part, the two professors were grateful to be part of the large collaboration. “Nobody’s an expert on everything,” said Maughan, “so it was exciting to rub shoulders with leading world experts on the range of all the things in the paper.”
“To work with these amazing international scientists to see the whole genome sequence of oat and its two progenitors published, especially in a journal like Nature, it’s terrific,” Jellen added.