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BYU researchers part of group that sequenced oat genome

By Ashtyn Asay - | Jun 14, 2022

Courtesy BYU Photo

Brigham Young University professors Jeff Maughan, left, and Rick Jellen inspect oat plans in a greenhouse on BYU's campus in early June 2022. They worked with a group of researches to sequence the genome of the oat.

Oats may not look too complex at first glance, but this grain boasts roughly four times the DNA content of humans and three times more genes.

“When you think about what makes up an organism, you often think about body parts, or plants you think about the leaves and roots, but the reality is that those things are all produced through a blueprint at the DNA level,” Jeff Maughan said. “And that DNA blueprint is quite complex, and in the case of oats is even more complex than people would want to believe.”

Oats are nutrient-dense and, therefore, becoming more popular as a foodstuff. But because of their complex genetic structure, oat breeders have had difficulty trying to improve production in order to meet the demand created by oat milk and cereals.

“The problem that people have in terms of their diet, it’s not a lack of calories, its too many calories,” Rick Jellen said. “We have problems with obesity and heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, and oat is a very very good plant to eat.”

However, new research aims to fix that by giving oat breeders and fellow scientists a roadmap for navigating the genetic structure of the oat.

Researchers led by the ScanOats Industrial Research Centre in Sweden have successfully sequenced the genome of a modern oat, Avena sativa, the Swedish variety “Sang.” Maughan and Jellen, both Brigham Young University plant and wildlife sciences professors, made an important contribution to the project by sequencing the genomes of two of the oat’s ancient progenitors to give insight into the plant’s history.

“What we did is we assembled the oat genome into chromosomes, and then from that assembly we were able to identify, predict if you would, where genes were,” Maughan said. “Once we knew where genes were, we were able to identify what those genes did.”

In order to complete this time-consuming work, Maughan and Jellen used two of the best sequencing instruments available in the world today at the BYU Life Sciences DNA Sequencing Center and a supercomputer located at BYU’s Research Computing Center.

The researchers’ findings were published as the cover article in Nature, one of the world’s preeminent scientific journals, on May 18.

By examining this newly sequenced genome, breeders will have the opportunity to isolate the genes that offer the most nutritional value in the oat and be able to invent new ways to make oat crops more drought resistant in order to withstand the changing climate.

“Before it was a closed book for them. They didn’t have any clue what the genes looked like, they didn’t know where they were at, what chromosome they were at or what end of what chromosome,” Maughan said. “And here all of a sudden they have a resource that they truly could just go and Google, if you would, a specific gene that they think might be implicated in whatever agricultural trait they’re interested in.”

One of the researchers’ most exciting findings as they sequenced the oat genome was that oats are truly a gluten-free food. Additionally, the researchers found the gene that is responsible for producing a waxy coating on oat seeds that protects them from heat damage and water loss. By locating this gene, breeders can now breed it into their crops to make them more drought-resistant.

Maughan and Jellen are so passionate about their research because they believe that an investment in improving oat crops is an investment in global food security.

“Almost all of the calories that we consume as humans really come from a handful of crops,” Maughan said. “You could probably say 50% of all calories come from corn, wheat, rice. … It’s just a handful of domesticated species that feed us as humans, and that’s kind of scary.”


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