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Researchers recreate wild crops for the beer of the future

Posted April 5, 2017

Barley and wheat are highly improved crops, and they are the two most produced crops in Denmark. It is thousands of years ago since these plants grew wild in nature, and today the refined grains cannot compete with other plants without the farmer’s care. This creates problems in a sustainable agriculture, where the crops are not fertilized and sprayed in the same intensive manner as in conventional farming.

Image credit: 3268zauber via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A group of researchers from the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of Copenhagen and the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Aarhus University will – in collaboration with Carlsberg – try to bring barley, the second most widely grown crop in Denmark, back to its original robust origin.

Advanced improvement technology paves the way

By using an advanced new improvement technology that Carlsberg has developed, the researchers will –  under natural conditions under natural conditions – reintroduce some of the properties to the crop that it has lost over the years. This will affect the crop’s ability to absorb nutrients and to get nutrition brought right out into the grains.

–  So far, breeding has mostly been associated with getting the plant to deselect its natural properties. The plants have become larger, because they have lost the property that naturally limits their growth length. And when fruits get sweeter, it is because they have lost the natural bitter substances. In this project, we will give the plants some of their lost properties back, says Professor Michael Broberg Palmgren from the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of Copenhagen.

This development will not only be important for the environment, but also for the industry.

The Carlsberg company is a partner in the project and buys a large part of the barley produced, and they estimate that they will be able to save millions every year. Also the farmers and the grain industry estimate that an increased productivity and natural robustness of the crop will yield a profit of tens of millions.

The future lies in the past

With the investment from the Innovation Fund Denmark, it is possible to develop and test this improvement technology, which all partners in the project have access to. A technology that is expected to generate barley varieties with the most optimal natural properties. The process is also called rewilding. By using the unique expertise of the partners of the project, it is possible for the first time to have influence on the grain yield by improving the transport, storage and mobilization of nutrients supplied to the grain.

– Under adverse conditions, where there is only little free nutrient present in the soil, the wild plants have advanced systems to have the nutrients made available and channeled through the root to the grain. Although the crop plants are heavily fertilized, they are not nearly as good as the wild plants to get micro nutrients, such as zinc, into their grains. By the use of rewilding, we’ll now help them to improve their uptake, says Associate Professor Henrik Brinch-Pedersen from the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Aarhus University. The method for obtaining rewilding will be developed in collaboration with the project partner Carlsberg that is the owner of the improvement platform, which the present project called LESSISMORE is based on.

It is highly likely that the LESSISMORE results can be transferred to crops other than barley and lead to spin-off initiatives. With LESSISMORE, the researchers aim at developing a new method for implementing modern improvement that is both effective and sustainable for agriculture, industry and environment.

Source: Aarhus University

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