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Barley

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Cracking the genetic code for barley has opened up a world of possibilities for the world’s oldest grain.
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OSU researcher Pat Hayes discusses barley growth in the Pacific Northwest.

Welcome to Barleyworld. In these virtual catacombs, you’ll encounter a genome that’s comparable in size to the human genome, sip an age-old brew that’s surprisingly modern, and discover a new health food. Just as Disneyland began in the imagination of Walt, Barleyworld is the collected inspiration of Pat Hayes, OSU’s intrepid barley breeder and imagineer of all things barley.

At first glance, Barleyworld looks more like a web site than an amusement park. But don’t be fooled. Hayes has collected more possibilities for the world’s oldest crop than Walt ever imagined for the world’s oldest mouse.

Pat Hayes by Lynn Ketchum
BarleyWorld Web site
barley grain by Lynn Ketchum

Barleyworld began more than 10 years ago, as a handful of researchers from around the world began working to unravel the barley genome. Cracking the genetic code has unlocked a magic kingdom for barley breeders, revealing thousands of genetic differences in barley strains, and opening new possibilities for the grain.

Opening the taps on a deeper understanding of barley genetics, one of the first things to pour out is beer. Barley varieties are classified by season (winter types or spring types) and by the number of rows they have on each axis of the seed head (two-, four-, or six-row varieties). Most European brewers will tell you that two-row, spring barley is the best malting barley; American brewers insist that six-row malt imparts the “crisp” flavor to domestic beers.

Hayes argues that there is no single configuration of genes that defines a good malting variety. To prove the point, Hayes is exploring the malting qualities in Oregon’s six-row winter barleys that he hopes can satisfy the region’s taste for quality microbrews.

Although many people associate barley with making beer, barley is making a splash in the health department. High levels of beta-glucan in barley help to lower harmful cholesterol and increase beneficial cholesterol. With more than three times the soluble fiber than in oatmeal, barley may help reduce the risk of colon cancer as it feeds healthy bacteria in the digestive tract.

That was news enough for Hayes to launch a promising collaboration with food chemist and OSU bread explorer Andrew Ross, to
develop a healthy, beta-glucan-rich food barley for the Pacific Northwest. The first experimental loaves have been delicious, with a tint of blue in the flour and a nutty flavor to the bread.

One hitch. Beta-glucan is the dieter’s delight and the brewer’s bane, according to Hayes. The waxy starch associated with beta-glucans can flatten beer. But the roadmap described by the vast barley genome will help Hayes identify the traits to breed into the best barley varieties for both bread and brew. To learn more, visit barleyworld.org